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PDIA – complex or what?

Yesterday, I was a discussant to a presentation by Michael Woolcock of his book, Building State Capacity which is generously shared online for free.
To position my comments, I’m speaking as a proselytiser for ‘Embracing Complexity’ – for seeing the world as essentially interconnected, shaped by context and history, where the future is not entirely knowable. Essentially, wishing the world is more certain, predictable, controllable than it is does not make it so.
Michael and his colleagues embrace many of the aspects of this worldview. They are pointing out that ‘one size does not fit all’ and that there is a need to take account of context, to customise approaches, to ‘try it and see’, to adapt, to work with the ‘local authorising environment’ and to ‘see the organisation within its ecosystem’. All good stuff! Problem-driven iterative adaptation (PDIA) is rooted in a desire to proceduralise an approach to dealing with the complex world. The authors define PDIA as: ‘a process of nominating local problems, authorising and pushing positive deviations and innovation to solve problems, iterating with feedback to identify solutions, and the eventual diffusion of solutions through horizontal and interlinked non-organisational networks.’
There are three points I would like to raise, however, to dig a bit deeper.
First, I’d like to check out who is the problem? The authors say, on the first page of the introduction, that ‘The missing ingredient from previous efforts has been the failure to mobilise a vibrant social movement of citizens, researchers and development practitioners’. They point to a ‘lack of implementation capability’ and ‘little improvement in 50 years’ and that developing states ‘cannot perform like modern states’.
But are we not having the same problem – are our institutions working well in our ‘modern states’? For example, in the UK we see the solution to improving educational measures about tightening up rules and processes, standardising, increasingly measuring schools, pupils, teachers. Meanwhile we are 23 out or 24 for literacy and 24 out of 24 for numeracy (OECD, 2013). Equally, we are throwing away the custom and practice of centuries of our rule of law through deregulation and through changing statutes undemocratically through use of ‘statutory instruments’. We run the risk of destroying what has emerged over centuries, been refined and adapted as we learned through doing. Are ‘we’ so good in actuality?
And is not a key part of the problem for the developing world that ‘we’ the funders, ‘we’ the ‘experts’ from our ‘modern states’ still promote a managerialism based on linear thinking and demand associated behaviours? So, to what extent is ‘their’ capacity the central problem? When I’ve spoken to people on the ground and/or to experienced development practitioners it seems to me that ‘they’ often know what the issue is (managerialism stifling the ability to respond to contexts) and ‘they’ tend to have local solutions – which they either get on with secretly because they are going against the rules, or get frustrated and become compliant because ‘they’ are never asked what they think. So, as Michael said in the talk (but perhaps less in the book) and I agree, it feels that individuals do not lack capacity, but the systems – legal, educational, judicial – do. But will PDIA work to change these systems without also tackling this pervasive underpinning culture of obedience and compliance and its shadow culture of corruption which has resulted from ‘us’; from our own tendencies towards standardisation, best practice and simply knowing best because we are from ‘modern states’?
The second point I’d like to raise is about iteration and adaptation. The authors say that they would expect this to be ‘rapid and aggressive’ but in complex systems there is often a time lag between inputs and outputs and much subjectivity as to what has happened, what has worked and why? How and who decides ‘it’ has worked or not worked and that something else should be tried? Is rapid necessarily right; how do you decide? How do you notice and respond to outcomes that were unintended and unexpected but nevertheless positive? When do you change direction and when do you wait a bit longer because you feel there are tiny glimmers of a shift in attitude, a change in behaviour? There is a danger that the implementation of IA can return to a mechanistic approach, seeking clear indications of outcomes related to inputs. So I’d like to explore in a bit more detail how we can make those judgements, how to keep IA loose and flexible.

The third point I’d like to explore concerns the future – how do we build capacity to notice and respond to what emerges further down the line and build in the capacity to adapt? Equally, how do we work with the ‘authorising environment’ of ‘them’ (funders, northern governments, local stakeholders) that can allow this to happen. Otherwise we may just lock in the customised and locally-owned and designed processes that have emerged out of PDIA, but not embed ways to continually adapt/respond/customise into the future.

PDIA is a great tool and the book explains well the reasons why locally-driven, customised approaches which respond to local contexts are so important. But it suffers from the same problem of all tools which aim to work in the complex world; they can easily become mechanised and, if handled within a mindset still steeped in managerialist assumptions, and in power structures which still reward certainty and clear evidence, fail to make the step change to which they aspire. So let’s take the spirit of PDIA, keep asking and re-asking what actually is the problem, keep checking that solutions, one iterated don’t just get fixed and ‘scaled up’, and stay alive to adapting towards an emerging future.

Systemic change round table

I was privileged to be invited to a round table discussion in Oxford earlier this week on systemic change, hosted by Academics Stand Against Poverty (ASAP).  Contributors included Tom Crompton from ‘The Common Cause Foundation’, Jen Morgan, co-founder of ‘The Finance Lab’, Alex Jones of ‘The New Economics Foundation’ and Iason Gabriel, a politics fellow at St John’s in Oxford.

The thing that was so great about this round table was that it aspired to the principles of systemic change – i.e. it brought together a range of people from difference disciplines and life experiences, gave space for presenting ideas and space for connecting and seeing what emerged. And, for me, what emerged was this sense that certain themes that have been part of my thinking and practice edge seemed to have much in common with the themes of others, coming from very different starting points.

For me, these themes included:

  • What does governance mean in a global (systemic) world?
  • The importance of values and worldviews – and what do you do to surface/influence values and worldviews/unifying narratives?
  • How do you – or indeed do you – engage with the question of evidence and attribution in a systemic world. Does our obsession with attribution take over from our focus on learning and sharing how to engender change in the first place – and indeed on how we use evidence of attribution and measures of success if and when we achieve it?
  • Principles and intentions rather than methods and theories of change?
  • Change – when do you do what – intervention, regulation, building coalitions and communities, challenge/activism, bottom-up/top down, nudging/directing – how do we give some guidance as to how you judge what to do – or do you just try things and see what happens?

I was particularly fascinated by the work Tom Crompton shared, some research on values. He was telling us that if we engage people with, say, economic reasons for reducing carbon, this tends to diminish how we value and pay attention to environmental values. We diminish the strength of ‘self-transcendence’ values if we focus on/reward ‘self-enhancement’ values.

This fits, interestingly, with our increasing understanding of the plasticity of the brain (read or watch on BBC catch up The Brain by David Eagleman). And how the brain works fits with our understanding of the dynamics of complex systems – where the future in shaped, at least in part, by the ingredients you put into it. In other words, if you feel that the end justifies the means, you may allow yourself to sidestep your own moral code, in which case you are adding ‘less than ideal’ ingredients into the mix.

Complexity thinking suggests that in general the ‘end’ does not follow smoothly from the present and in general we cannot be certain what will emerge. So how we act and what values and behaviours (ingredients) we put into the system – what we do ‘now’-  is not something we can sidestep. Eagleman, similarly, is saying that the brain will reshape itself given what influences it, what we think about and how we feel rewarded by others with whom we are in relationship. The emerging patterns of connection are shaped by the past and changed by what we do/think/feel/pay attention to.

So, I hope you can feel how energised I felt by the roundtable, how nice it was to meet with others and engage in a way that was both ‘of the mind’ and also ‘of the heart’. You could feel the commitment and passion in the room about playing a part in making the world a better, more equal, more sustainable place.

I ‘get it’ but will ‘they’? Gathering evidence that ’embracing complexity’ makes things simpler and more effective

I had the pleasure of giving a talk to the Institutional Effectiveness Learning Group earlier this week, hosted at Action Aid. This is a group that includes a number of INGOs, and they are focusing on the need for organisations to be adaptive. I was talking, first, about how complexity thinking illustrates why we need to be adaptive. It was a great and lively meeting.

So, the argument, in a nutshell, is that we have taken over one particular form of science, one theory from physics – the idea that things operate like machines – into the social world as it gives us the feeling that we can predict the future and control outcomes. But in fact the world operates more like an ecology than a machine – interconnected, quirky, evolving, organic, affected by the particularities of context and history. Complexity theory is how physics explains ecological evolution and gives us a model more in tune with social reality on which to base practice in the social world. As I said in the talk, it also mirrors our personal experience of how the world works, how our lives unfold. When I explain complexity theory to my old Mum, she looks at me quizzically and says, ‘Isn’t that common sense, dear?’ She is right of course.

I also explored what ‘being adaptive’ might mean. Complexity theory is a middle ground between machine-like certainty and random chaos where we can predict nothing. It is certainly sometimes important to react to changing circumstances, to seize unexpected opportunities, and mitigate unexpected difficulties or unintended outcomes. But that is not to say that we have to be passive, that we have to just wait and see what turns up. We should also make efforts to analyse the context, understand how the present is built on the past, take of view of the wider context, ‘foresight’ into the future, and do our best to determine a direction, clarify our intentions and decide how best to achieve them. The issue is that, as we implement our plans, try to move towards our goals, we stay alert to what is working and what is not; to whether the wider context is changing unexpectedly; to whether some of the emerging outcomes are different and indeed better than we expected and need extra focus. Finally, being adaptive includes piloting, experimenting, and also allowing approaches to be modified to suit particular local conditions.

So ‘being adaptive’ is (i) reacting to change (ii) moving ahead with strong, well-informed intentions but reviewing often and being prepared to adapt to the unexpected (iii) experimenting, piloting but also allowing approaches to be customised to suit local situations.

I added a bit at the end to my talk, because people often feel quite despairing about these messages. They get it, but feel that they work in a bureaucracy, which, for the very good reasons of wanting to be efficient and ensure funds are spent effectively, minimise the ability to adapt, be flexible and seize opportunities. What can you do then, to try and influence the powers that be? There is no perfect answer to this question, but here are some suggestions.

(a)    Gather evidence over and above any established indicators, of emerging unexpected outcomes and track these as they emerge, and if possible support their growth. This focus on tracking emerging outcomes can give confidence to funders that loosening up may actual lead to greater not diminished effectiveness.

(b)   Spend more time in the field understanding the past, exploring what other agencies are doing, looking into the future to see if any ‘critical junctures’ may be looming and use this evidence to argue for a degree of flexibility and customisation of approaches.

(c)    See where it is possible to add other projects around a core project so that work becomes more systemic, more able to deal with a range of factors that, together, influence reduction in poverty and powerlessness. Show how this can lead to more sustainable and effective change.

I hope these suggestions do not feel obvious, impossible or irritating. I think what I am trying to say is that ‘embracing complexity’ can make things simpler, can lead to great effectiveness and more sustainable change – and if this is right, then there will be evidence to support this statement, which you can find. People know things need to change, and there is a lot of interest in this thinking – about complexity, adaptive working, resilience and so on. ‘They’ just want some assurance that if they loosen the grip, things will not all descend into chaos.

London book launch of Embracing Complexity

Evolutionary Complexity and the Social World

A talk, wine, and books – please share and sign up!

Evening Lecture

Thursday September 10th 2015, 7:00pm*

Franklin Theatre,
Institute of Physics, 76 Portland Place,
London W1B 1NT

Peter Allen has kindly agreed to attend and will be happy to answer questions.

Complexity theory, with its roots in physics and biology, has long been applied to the human world, particularly in the field of economics, but also to management, political theory, strategy and policy-making.

Building on the recently published book, Embracing Complexity, Jean will discuss the implications of applying natural science theories to social systems and explore some practical and sometimes surprising perspectives.

*Tea and coffee will be available before the talk from 6:30pm and there will be a reception with wine and canapés to follow, ending around 8.30pm.

This talk will be of interest to those – scientist or non-scientist – engaging with the complexity of the social world.
Membership of the IOP is not required and there is no registration fee.

If you would like to attend then please contact Emma Suckling before 4th September at:
[email protected]

If Complexity could vote, she would vote…

What are the implications of complexity for how we understand power and politics?  Bitter experience (as well as complexity theory) tells us that it is generally the case that the powerful get more powerful and the big get bigger. This is captured in complexity language by the notion of ‘positive feedback loops’ which equate to the economists’ ‘increasing returns’. In general there is no reason to expect that economies will self-regulate and find a ‘natural’ balance. Even forests, if left to themselves for long enough, reduce in diversity, increase in efficiency and become ‘locked in’ to ecological patterns that are hard to invade and change and can easily collapse.

Complexity suggests that  if we want economic development that equalizes power, reduces inequality and incorporates longer-term environmental goals, there is a need for some sort of regulatory processes to counter the seemingly inevitable coalescing of power and wealth in fewer and fewer hands. Otherwise the rise out of poverty is linked more to growth than to development (development meaning a qualitative change in shape and form of the economy rather than a quantitative change – you can obviously have both). And an economy that is growing can in fact take our attention away from underlying structural exacerbations of inequality. Growth cannot go on forever, as land, water and minerals are consumed (not to mention the pesky issue of climate change) – but growth can mask just who captures the bulk of resources and who can, as a result, exert control over governments, markets and societies.

This may seem counter to the fact that complexity thinking is often tied up with a seeming trust that self-organising processes, the free market for example, will lead to the ‘best’ outcomes, following some sort of natural law – the so-called ‘invisible hand’. But, complexity, along with economist Stiglitz, would argue that there is no invisible hand. To maintain and enhance diversity requires strong and shared intentions to do so, and ways (e.g. focus on values, community engagement, joined up social/economic/environmental thinking and innovative approaches to governance) of countering the concentration of power that tends to arise.

Indeed, sometimes, drastic and disruptive action is needed, not gentle adaptation and responsiveness. For example, in situations which have very locked-in political and social factors, the focus needs to be on how to break the deadlock, perhaps with high level political interventions and sanctions. No use approaching economic development in Palestine with an adaptive mindset. Equally, if the situation is chaotic, like say in South Sudan, then finding ways to build on (any) emerging shoots of political stability is likely to be a first priority.

So, with last May’s elections in the UK fresh in mind, what about the political persuasions of Complexity? If she is interested in social and economic justice, Complexity would never stand for election for a party based on a ‘free market’ ideology for reasons already discussed. The reduction in numbers of small banks, the constant pushing of legal boundaries, the size of bankers’ bonuses, the risk-taking which led to bail outs,  show what can happen in a deregulated market. Power and money give the means to dominate, to win the advertising campaign, to push governments, to squeeze supply chains. There is no such thing as a free market.

It could be argued that Complexity is more of a socialist than anything else (a very Green one though – she understands the need to consider long-term consequences to the system of which we are a part). Complexity understands market failure. As we’ve said, she does not take the naïve view that self-organizing processes are shaped by some sort of ‘natural law’ and can be trusted to provide the ‘best’ outcome; she understands the importance of governance and ways of upholding the needs of the less powerful, the poor, the longer-term and the environment. This is not to suggest that she would impose a top-down model of governance dreamed up on a plane by consultants and lawyers and plopped fully formed onto a developing country or region. Rather she sees the need to facilitate the emergence of socially-owned processes of governance and civic empowerment, and to build on those practices that already exist.

There’s more. Complexity is community-minded (would balance freedom with responsibility), keen to work at the appropriate scale, keen not to impose solutions, but to work with enhancing and protecting what is already there. She is passionate about embracing diversity and brave enough to wander well outside any narrow remit to identify blockages, join things up and say the unsayable. She understands that you have to work from the smallest household to the biggest government or corporation – and back again -to enhance the conditions for economic development in a way that leads to equality and sustainability.

Not the wrong trousers but the wrong science

The book, Embracing Complexity, has been accepted by Oxford University Press and will be published the summer of 2015.

The first part of the book is about the theory and ideas and science of complexity. It compares differing approaches, and also provides a historical perspective, showing how such thinking has been around since the beginning of civilisation. This has been a very interesting exploration – to see how pre-modern perspectives accord so closely with the worldview that comes from the study of evolutionary open complex systems.

The book, not surprisingly, emphasises the difference between a complexity worldview and the dominant mechanical worldview that underpins much of current management practice. It defines the complexity worldview as recognising the world is interconnected, emergent, shaped by history and the particularities of context, able to evolve, and surprise and adapt.

The book also includes a chapter on the comparison of differing approaches to modelling complexity. This is the hardest chapter to read but is thorough its depth and written to be accessibile to the non-mathematician.

The second part of the book uses this lens of complexity to explore issues in the fields of management, change, strategy, economics and international development. It also explores how to facilitate others to recognise the implications of adopting a complex rather than a mechanical worldview and suggests methods of research to explore systemic, path-dependent emergent aspects of situations. It takes a peek at what this all means, too, for us as individuals in the way we live and create meaning for our lives.

It ends with a dialogue between the authors – me, Peter Allen and Cliff Bowman – about what each of us really would like the reader to take away from the book.

It has been a long and exhausting and pain-staking journey to write this book. In the end most of the written words are mine, although the ideas are developed and held between us to varying degrees. It feels, when I re-read it, that it is ok – I surprise myself in re-reading it as if I am reading the words of someone else. It is the best I can do and I feel happy with it. And the motivation of writing remains a political one – that we are destroying the earth and our societies by continually acting as if the world is predictable and controllable AND as if a free market gives the optimal outcome. My passion to emphasise that we continually adopt the wrong science to understand the complex world is undiminished.

Now I feel that something has come to an end. I am pleased to rest awhile and smell the roses, or at least the falling autumn leaves.

Where complexity meets fragility

Syria, in 2011, was 43rd on a key fragile state index, which of course seems a bit amazing given what has happened since. So why was that?

Fragile states are states at risk of collapse – often through a mix of social, political, environmental and economic factors. But do we focus too much on current measures of fragility (or stability) – of uneven distribution of wealth, of obvious social unrest, of obvious conflict, of the provision (or lack) of social services? And do we not pay enough attention to past history – how issues of inequality and conflict become embedded and go underground in the social and political frameworks? And, do we give enough consideration to the future – to future potential critical junctures where oil (say) is about to run out or where population growth is fast outstripping available agricultural land, itself squeezed due to climate change and deforestation?

Driven by my immersion in complexity thinking, I notice I have  started to carry around in my head a sort of analytical mantra.

I ask:

  • The past: What has happened in the past that may have led to embedded patterns of inequality and conflict and ‘hidden’ fragility?
  • The present: What is going on now, but also is anything beginning to emerge that may trigger change?
  • The future: What might be on the horizon that is a real threat to stability – economic cliffs, monolithic political regimes bound to break sometime?
  • The little and the big: What is occurring locally but what is also occurring regionally and internationally which is relevant? What about big business and proxy conflicts and regional politics?
  • Round and round: How do different factors – social, political, economic and environmental – work together synergistically to form either vicious or virtuous circles?

So this is a dynamic, systemic way of analysing contexts, taking note of their complexity.

I’ve used this approach in analysing several fragile states and I’ve had to resist, here, trotting out the reflections I made and conclusions I reached, the patterns I felt I uncovered. But do ask if you’d like to know more.

The interesting issue is that this approach did, in some cases, highlight the likelihood of future collapse – where, let’s say, the rate of population growth and the predicted end of oil reserves coupled with increasing drought mean that there will be fewer resources and livelihoods to share amongst increasing numbers of people. And, in other cases, it pointed to possible ‘islands of effectiveness’ or underlying dynamics that could be built on in the future, post-collapse – for example no history of strong sectarianism even though the current situation has whipped it up, and/or an effective, if partisan, administration which could be dusted off in the future.

Another aspect of fragile states I’ve been working on is how a complex systems perspective alerts us to the idea that there are different types of fragility, needing different types of interventions. Duncan Green at Oxfam has blogged about this  and there is yet more to say…