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. A useful introduction to this topic is available as a posting on this site – Complicated or complex – knowing the difference is important for program development, implementation and evaluation. Further reading on this topic can also be gained by the related LfS pages on systems thinking,  systemic design and systems thinking tools.

This post and those from the links below 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.

Working with complex systems

Discussion Note: Complexity Aware Monitoring
This USAID discussion note outlines general principles and promising approaches for monitoring complex aspects of development programs. Complexity-aware monitoring is distinct from performance monitoring as practiced in USAID and is intended to complement performance monitoring when used for complex aspects of projects and strategies. In particular the authors point out that omplexity-aware monitoring is appropriate for aspects of strategies or projects where cause and effect relationships are poorly understood, thereby making it difficult to identify solutions and draft detailed implementation plans in advance.

Tackling wicked problems: A public policy perspective
This discussion paper put out by the Australian Public Service Commission explores the characteristics of wicked problems and the challenges they pose for the traditional approaches and skills sets of policy makers. Although developing effective ways to tackle wicked problems is an evolving art, this paper identifies some of the main ingredients that seem to be required.

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?”

Using participatory and learning-based approaches for environmental management to help achieve constructive behaviour change
This (oldish but still useful) 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 and policy implications
This paper by Karen Lucas and colleagues  describes a recent study in the UK aimed at identifying how policy makers might more effectively encourage pro-environmental behaviours amongst their target audiences. The study included analysis and synthesis of theories and models of behaviour change, a range of current policy programmes and instruments and ‘real world’ practices of individuals, households, groups and organisations.

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.

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.

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 authors 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.

More information on tools and methodologies to implement systems thinking can be found through the linked LfS pages on  systemic design,  systems thinking tools and conceptual modelling. You may also be interested in related pages such as  supporting constructive practice change,  strategic planning, and guides and manuals  for working in multi-stakeholder processes.