Is the system complicated or complex?
There are so many tools and approaches that it can sometimes be difficult to see the bigger picture that guides the selection of different approaches, and how they interlink in practice. In particular there is a need to appreciate the concepts of complicated and complex in order to fully understand the context and landscape which leads to the choice of appropriate interventions that will address the issues of sustainability. An introduction to this topic is available as a posting - Complicated or complex - knowing the difference is important for program development, implementation and evaluation.
These reviewers and others on this page remind us that social systems are complex, and aim to help us think about how to carry out useful interventions within complex systems. In this context we can better appreciate that while adaptive, self-organising social networks produce observable patterns in response to interventions that are neither predictable nor generalisable, it remains crucial that we learn to better understand our interventions to inform future possibilities. Further reading on this topic can also be gained by the related page on systems thinking.
Working with complex systems
- Taking responsibility for complexity This ODI briefing paper by Harry Jones is subtitled: When is a policy problem complex, why does it matter, and how can it be tackled? It builds on ODI research over three years to review the implications of complexity for policy and programme implementation. It has three aims: to give readers the tools to decide when a problem is complex, outline why this matters, and provide guidance on how to achieve results in the face of complexity. Also worth reading is a related ODI working paper by the same author: Taking responsibility for complexity: How implementation can achieve results in the face of complex problems.
- Complex adaptive systems thinking and capacity development This 2009 ECDPM policy management brief by Tony Land, Volker Hauck and Heather Baser is titled, "Capacity development: between planned interventions and emergent processes". The report argues that Systems Thinking, and the concept of Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) in particular, offers a perspective that can help us better to understand how capacity develops within organisations and large systems. In so doing, the concept of CAS suggests what external partners need to do differently to improve their support for endogenous capacity development processes. Finally the report looks at what this means for practice, and how a more emergent way of working might be achieved.
- Managing complexity: a systems approach This is a very useful introductory course from the Open University that aims to develop skills of thinking systematically and creatively about issues of complexity. It enables you to appreciate and manage these issues in ways that can lead to improvement. It adopts the most recent and innovative advances in systems thinking and shows how to apply them to topical areas of concern. It is designed to help build your capacity to manage complexity and to develop a deep understanding of contemporary systems thinking. A follow up advanced module can be found at Managing complexity: a systems approach (T306-2). Another related module on systems diagramming unit looks at how diagrams can be used to represent information and ideas about complex situations. This unit shows how to read, draw and present diagrams to help illustrate how ideas or processes are connected.
- Complicated and Complex Systems: What Would Successful Reform of Medicare Look Like? Authors Sholom Glouberman and Brenda Zimmerman report that it makes a difference if a problem is viewed as "complicated" or "complex" when applying remedies. In this paper they argue that health care systems are complex, and that repairing them is a complex problem. Most attempts to intervene in Medicare (and in many other health care systems) treat health systems as if they were merely complicated. The paper demonstrates this failure of understanding by tracing the deterioration of Medicare through a series of complicated interventions to its present destabilized state.. The paper suggests that many of these dilemmas can be dissolved if the system is viewed as complex.The paper concludes with the application of a complex systems approach to some of the Canadian problems and identifies what successful reform would look like. Most critically, complicated questions would be transformed into complex ones. For example the complicated question “What are the structures we need to make the health care system sustainable?” becomes the complex question “How do we build on current structures and relationships to stabilize and enhance Medicare?”
- Managing in an age of complexity This web article by Jean Boulton reviews thinking around complex systems which suggests predictability is the exception rather than the norm and that, to make organisations adaptable and able to learn, change and develop, we must emphasise interconnections, networks, crossfunctional processes, informality and relationships as well as encouraging diversity in the broadest sense. Jean points to emerging competencies for managing change as being scanning, handling complexity, weaving a vision, using judgement, empowering others, collaborating and adapting. More resources from Jean and colleagues can be found at their embracing complexity website.
- Using participatory and learning-based approaches for environmental management to help achieve constructive behaviour change This report from Will Allen, Margaret Kilvington, and Chrys Horn looks at how agencies can influence people's behaviour to improve environmental management. It highlights new approaches that work with multi-stakeholder groups and teams, in particular those which improve motivation, information flows, and collaborative learning. The report covers four main areas: i) a review of contemporary approaches to environmental policy making; ii) a review of frameworks for supporting behaviour change; iii) providing an outline of the key concepts for managing participation in practice; and iv) a description of techniques for building group capacity for environmental change.
- Promoting pro-environmental behaviour: Existing evidence to inform better policy making This DEFRA report by Andrew Darnton, Jake Elster-Jones, Karen Lucas and Mike Brooks underlines that there are many organisational and societal factors impacting on individuals’ behaviours. These may serve to prevent change from occurring, regardless of how appropriately a policy is designed on the individual level. By stressing that organisations and networks are “complex adaptive systems” in which change processes must be embedded both horizontally (i.e. within an organisation) and vertically (i.e. between organisations), systems thinking can offer new possibilities for effective processes of pro-environmental policy-making. In this way, the consistent principles of complexity, feedback and learning, and partnership working apply to pro-environmental behaviour change at all levels. At the individual level, it has been noted that the social marketing techniques widely used by practitioners attempting changes in health behaviours may offer a useful and practical way forward. Ultimately, the theoretical review demonstrates change to be circular; change theories at all levels are filled with loops (both feedback loops, and double loop learning), cycles (of action and reflection) and non-linear models. In addition, change is understood as progress over time, and not as a single event. These conclusions should underline for policy-makers the multi-levelled, circling, and often slow process of pro-environmental change, which they seek to encourage.
- Weathercocks and signposts: the environment movement at a crossroads This WWF report critically reassesses current approaches based on analogy with product marketing campaigns - particularly when the 'sovereignty' of consumer choice, and the perceived need to preserve current lifestyles intact, are taken as givens. The report constructs a case for a radically different approach. It presents evidence that any adequate strategy for tackling environmental challenges will demand engagement with the values that underlie the decisions we make - and, indeed, with our sense of who we are. Anything else, it argues, may ultimately be a waste of time and money.
- Recommendations for behaviour change programs to reduce greenhouse impacts in SA This report by Julia Winefield considers how to achieve a shift towards more sustainable and greenhouse friendly behaviour and make recommendations for behaviour change programs in South Australia based on these findings. It does this by an examination of evidence-based theories of behaviour change and actual programs that have been run in Australia and Canada.
- Theories and models of behaviour change This review by the Victorian TravelSmart program (Australia) explores and considers some of the major theories of behaviour and behaviour change that may be pertinent to the development of effective interventions in travel behaviour, including theories and concepts from mainstream psychology, and the associated sub-disciplines of health, leisure, recreation, physical activity and exercise psychology.
- Nine Emerging and Connected Organizational and Leadership Principles "Theory is fine. But what am I supposed to do?" Good question. That's where this article by Brenda Zimmerman, Curt Lindberg, and Paul Plsek comes in. Here you will find summaries of nine specific, action-oriented heuistics (or rules of thumb) for leading in a complex environment. Each principle is accompanied by insights from some of the leading thinkers in complexity science.
- The new dynamics of strategy: Sense-making in a complex and complicated world This 2003 paper, by Dave Snowden and C. F. Kurtz, challenges the universality of three basic assumptions prevalent in organizational decision support and strategy: assumptions of order, of rational choice, and of intent. They categorise activities on four levels of knowledge and organisation--described as the known, the knowable, the complex and the chaotic. The authors go on to describe a framework they have developed to help people make sense of the complexities made visible by the relaxation of these assumptions.
- Triggering widespread adoption of sustainable behaviour Brook Lyndhurst explored patterns of change relevant to environmental behaviour, in both consumer and business markets. The aim of this project is to illustrate the range and subtlety of possible interventions that might nudge a system towards S-curve development paths. The authros posit that the complexities of behaviour change tends to favour a model of ceaseless innovation within a network setting, rather than a single policy intervention. This may offer a valuable conceptualisation of how to move forward. [Note: can't find this anymore]
- Transition management is a fairly new term being used to describe change-based approaches that are able to take into account a very long time horizon, a multitude of actors with different perspectives, different levels of scale and uncertain future development. Learning is a key focus of such approaches, and transition management can be thought of as a change framework for all levels - from individual to societal. At a governance level see Transition management. At an organizational level see Principles of transition management and Transition management.
More specific tools, guides and processes that can be used within the wider context outlined here can be found from other pages in this section. A good place to start is to look at the range of guides and manuals that have been developed in a range of sectors.