Toolkit four: tools and frameworks for working in complexity
Understanding that we live in and work with complex systems is one thing – but how can we make sense of them? And how can we possibly transform them? This toolkit is an introduction to a number of approaches changemakers can use. Remember that it’s only an introduction. We’ve tried to focus on some of the concepts and tools we think are most immediately useful for changemakers. If you follow the links and references within each, you’ll find there’s much, much more! But if you’re feeling overwhelmed, just start here. It’s a good beginning.
Acknowledgements: This toolkit was created by the Interaktiv kapacitetsutveckling för systeminnovation i utvecklingssamarbete/Interactive capacity development for system innovation in development co-operation (IXUS) collaboration, supported by a grant from Sida, and building upon thought leadership in a number of changemaker programmes from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, University of Cape Town, Adapt, Southern Africa Food Labs, University of Waterloo, and University of Victoria.
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The first step to working with a complex system is being able to make sense of it. Complex systems, with their myriad interrelationships, constant change, and unpredictability are, by definition, extremely difficult to understand. But there are approaches developed by practitioners over the years that can help. Here we introduce three for getting started.
Section 1: The adaptive cycle
This framework arose in the context of ecological studies; but its concept of phases is equally useful in linked social-ecological systems. This video provides an overview. One of the interesting issues raised is our ability to unnaturally keep social systems in a state of conservation when the system is moving towards release and reorganisation. As changemakers, we need to interrogate the potential advantages and drawbacks of such actions. While natural systems simply move through the adaptive cycle, in social systems, we can make choices. What are the implications? We’ll investigate some of them in the resources, below.
In this lecturette, Frances Westley uses the adaptive cycle as an explanatory framework to understand evolutions in social innovations. Each phase could be thought of as a psycho-social space with its own characteristics and with different demands upon changemakers.
This worksheet is a follow-on to the lecturette, above, and provides more information about the requirements and demands for changemakers at each phase of the adaptive cycle.
In this article, read why complex systems are their most creative when they’re at the edge of chaos. This is a very challenging notion, since edging towards chaos is inherently risky and, understandably, scary. But if we want to innovate, and especially if we want to transform systems so that we can address wicked problems, we need to get close to that edge.
Use this worksheet to analyse your innovation, organisation, and personal transformation journey and to analyse both your current and probable future needs and opportunities.
Section 2: Systems dynamics
To work effectively in complex adaptive systems, you need to understand their characteristics. Review the basics in the article linked, above. Spend some time reflecting on the right-hand column, which notes numerous implications for changemakers, related to each characteristic.
Though complex systems are dynamic, constantly changing, and unpredictable, there are tools to understand them. This short video gives a step-by-step introduction to one example. Experiment with using a systems circle to map and understand your own complex context. However, keep in mind some very important elements of the process: - We bring all our biases to such an exercise, so that, rather than providing insight, it may simply reinforce what we already believe. - To avoid this, it’s very important to do this together with stakeholders. - It’s very important to ensure there are a diversity of perspectives and voices. - And, since systems are ever-changing and your systems circle will immediately be out-of-date, such modelling should be done again and again, over time.
Section 3: Transformative potentials
This short article and infographic introduces the idea of conditions for systems change. There is also an informative one-hour webinar on this page.
This paper develops a theory of transformative agency and leadership in linked social-ecological systems. It uses the adaptive cycle of systems phases, together with a model of opportunity contexts in systems to propose the theory, and links particular strategies to the different phases of system change.
Next, dive into Donella Meadows’ classic work. It identifies twelve specific points in a complex adaptive system which hold more potential than any others for leverage and change.
This webinar, hosted by the Systems innovation hub, London, examines the concept of leverage points with four panelists and different perspectives on the concept of leverage points. Jump to 5:45 minutes to skip the preliminaries.
With strategies for understanding our system – an ongoing task that never ends – how do we actually make change in systems? Here, again, is only a beginning, focusing on a few approaches that are immediately useful to changemakers.
Section 1: Scale
This short video introduces the idea of realms of social structure at different levels within a system, embedded within each other. If you’re hoping to shift a system towards different outcomes, you need to understand these scales, how they relate and interact, and how to investigate them.
This article provides an overview of five different kinds of scaling and analyses them to understand what they tell us about social change efforts. Sample questions, indicators, and methods are suggested for each kind of scaling.
This classic paper discusses the three types of scaling in social innovation – out, up, and deep – the strategies for each, the different tools that are used, and why all these types of scaling are needed for social innovation.
Section 2: Experimentation and learning
Through some fascinating stories, Tim Harford makes the argument for experimentation as an essential component of innovation – along with humility and a consistent dedication to learning.
In this short video, Steven Johnson explains the key ideas in his book, Wonderland: how play made the modern world. He shows that, through the ages, people have put a lot of energy and resources into play and fun – sometimes to an extent that seems foolhardy for basic survival. But it turns out that these playful artifacts and activities have been key to many of the world’s most important inventions. Not just inventors, but more importantly social and systems innovators, need play in order to experiment, learn, and catalyse breakthroughs. If your interest is piqued, you can find numerous lectures and talks from Johnson on the topic; and the book is highly recommended.
In an earlier book, Steven Johnson examined how ideas that lead to important innovations and social change come from the combination and recombination of ideas, and what he calls ‘the adjacent possible’ – new possibilities that are thrown up by the system, possibilities that are available to be picked up and used by actors in the system. These ideas are key to understanding the processes of innovation and change in complex adaptive systems.
This video is just one segment of a MOOC on resilience in social-ecological systems. In complex adaptive systems that are dynamic and constantly changing, optimisation approaches are ill-fitted. In a world where a vast amount of what happens is outside our control, and where we may not even be certain about how to define the problem, experimentation and learning are critical.
Section 3: Imagining positive futures
How should we live in the Anthropocene? In this video, Garry Peterson argues that we haven’t thought enough about this question and that, while we have lent our imaginations to dystopic futures, we haven’t put nearly enough energy into imagining what good futures could look like. He argues that the integrity of the biosphere, fairness, and sustainability are foundational principles that can guide imagining a good Anthropocene.
This publication asks why we find it easier to imagine catastrophic futures than good ones that we might strive towards – and, importantly, why we find it so difficult to develop shared imagined futures. It examines the history of imagining futures, reasons for the retreat of social imagination, the role of technology, and methods that can be engaged to develop this imaginary capacity.
Thinking about imagination in the context of changemaking is different from how we might think about imagination in general. This paper defines imagination as ‘the interdependent cognitive and social processes that create representations of present and possible future states of the world that can inform public deliberation, policy, decision making, and behavior from the individual to the global scale’, and inquires into it.
This blogpost explains the practice of speculative design and how it can help changemakers ‘steal from the future’. It presents a number of recent examples and a list of tips for this type of future casting.
Here is just one example, from InnovationHub, of exercises that are used to stimulate imaginative thinking during the ideation phase of a design process. If you do a web search for such exercises, you’ll find many to spark your own imagination. Such exercises are useful; however, you can see from the previous resources introduced, that techniques and tools won’t address the need for a different approach to imagination, if we hope to catalyse transformations. To go deeper, continue with the next section on the three horizons framework.
Section 4: Three horizons
In this seven-minute video, Kate Raworth succinctly explains the three horizons framework, a tool and process used to help groups think about and engage together in transformative change processes.
This is part one of two episodes of the podcast, Outrage and Optimism, which explores the messiness in the process of transformation. Though they don’t use the language of the three horizons framework, what is being discussed here clearly fits within horizon two – the horizon where most changemakers will spend most of their time. So, learning to navigate it is a core skill. You will hear six stories – almost mini case studies – from: Helen Pankhurst (Care International), Bill McKibben (environmentalist, author, educator), Gail Bradbrook (Extinction Rebellion), Jerome Foster II (WAIC Up, White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, Adam Kahane (Reos Partners), and Charles Ogilvie (former Director of Strategy, Cabinet Office, COP 26). Outrage and Optimism focuses on climate, but the issues raised are relevant for changemakers across domains.
In part two of Momentum vs Perfection, the exploration of the messy horizon two continues. We hear from Justin Forsyth (Count Us In), Farhana Yamin (Climate Reframe Project), Peter Bakker (World Business Council for Sustainable Development), Sister True Dedication (Plum Village Community), and Helen Pankhurst (Care International).
This website is dedicated to the use of the three horizons framework and is full of tools, suggested activities, and network activities. A must-visit for anyone using three horizons.
Section 5: Stretch collaboration
The idea of stretch collaboration was developed by Adam Kahane in his book, Collaborating with the Enemy (2017). This book review explains the main concepts.
In this short article in Strategy + Business, Adam Kahane explains stretch collaboration in the context of his ongoing work with the peace process in Colombia.
In this episode of Conversations That Matter, Adam Kahane is interviewed about the origins and process of stretch collaboration. He discusses the idea of stretch collaboration from a very personal point of view.
Section 6: Evaluating in complexity
This iconoclastic article makes the provocative statement that ‘it is impossible for organisations to “demonstrate their impact” if they work in complex environments.’ Since we do work in complex environments, what does this mean? The author argues that focussing on impact not only takes us in the wrong direction, but also leads to the production of fantasy data and undermines learning. Instead, we need to focus on collaborative learning and adaptation.
If collaborative learning and adaptation is how we need to approach evaluation in complex contexts, what does that look like? Here’s an interview discussing one example.
This one-hour webinar covers a great deal of useful information about what evaluation means when you’re trying to catalyse systemic change, including a brief review of the characteristics of systems, and why they demand different approaches. Skip forward to 4:30 minutes for the beginning of the presentation, which lasts about 30 minutes (the rest of the time is Q&A).
The standard for evaluating in complex contexts has come to be developmental evaluation, created by Michael Quinn Patton and colleagues, and explained in his seminal book, Developmental Evaluation. This article outlines the basics of the approach – a beginner teaser in two pages. You’ll learn much more about developmental evaluation in the toolkit 5: self-guided learning exercises.
This resource examines the necessity to do evaluation differently in complex contexts and lays out nine propositions for doing so. Towards the end, the nine propositions are summarised in one table, each with a description, very brief notes on its importance, and a list of suggested helpful tools.
In this very personal essay, Zenda Ofir argues for a radically different philosophy of evaluation – one that is consistent with working in complex adaptive systems.