Engaging in a Complex World

In development studies and practice there are some key voices advocating for organizational changes. Ben Ramalingam, Duncan GreenDanny Burns and Stuart Worsley, Dave Algoso, and the USAID Learning Lab. They are calling for complexity and systems thinking to support more informed adaptive and iterative decision making and management. As these voices gain traction, and more experimentation occurs, organizations are shifting. However, our learning have largely been within our own development silo – examples of agricultural interventions in Southeast Asia or WASH programming in East Africa. What might we learn from experimentation outside our silo? In comes McChrystal's "Team of Teams" New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World" (2015), taking us into how the military has responded to these same calls.

In many ways the story is similar. Old ways of thinking and working were not working. The author writes "For a soldier trained at West Point as an engineer, the idea that a problem has different solutions on different days was fundamentally disturbing. Yet that was the case" (p. 3). As with the individuals mentioned above, McChrystal (and co-authors) argue "that the familiar pursuit of efficiency must change course. Efficiency remains important, but the ability to adapt to complexity and continual change has become an imperative" (p. 5).

What I found most interesting is that the experimentation of the US military is not all the same as that in the humanitarian and development sector, and we ought to take note of the ideas emerging.

Change required re-making teams of staff as well as institutions: "In situations of unpredictability, organizations need to improvise. And, to do that, the players on the field need to understand the broader context. At the team level, this is self-evident. But at the broader institutional level, it is more difficult to engineer structures that are both coherent and improvisatory" (p. 143). Horizontal and vertical learning. Early lessons were taken from NASA: "take off the blinders and have people talk to each other. The basic concept requires only the unlearning of fundamentalist approaches to efficiency, but the implementation requires constant maintenance: making sure that everyone has constantly updated, holistic awareness became a full-time job for many, and required commitment and time from everyone" (p. 151-152). Notably, this included global, daily, live meetings with broad participation, having up to 7,000 people joining in. It also included transforming the structure of building and office space. But, the infrastructural changes were just the start: "Our new physical plant provided structure for our transformation, but we knew it was not enough. A new layout with an old culture can deliver the worst of both worlds: countless managers, easer to adopt the new trend that promises innovation but reluctant to abandon the org chart, have done away with cubicles only to produce a nosier, more distracting environment that is neither efficient nor effective" (p. 162).

The military called their thought and cultural transformation "shared consciousness", which McChrystal argues "demanded the adoption of extreme transparency throughout our force and with our partner forces. This was not "transparency" in the sense that it is usually used in the business world, a synonym for personal candidness. We needed transparency that provided every team with an unobstructed, constantly up-to-date view of the rest of the organization. It is the type of transparency that those of us raised in the comfort of bureaucratic silos find uncomfortable. But it would be absolutely critical to our ability to coalesce and succeed as a team of teams" (p. 163). The changes included stronger partnerships with other institutions – beyond connecting, they built relationships, and strengthened them by exchanging staff: "One of our most controversial moves was our embedding program, an exchange system we began in late 2003 in which we would take an individual from one team – say, an Army Special Forces Operator – and assign him to a different part of our force for six months – a team of SEALs, for example, or a group of analysts. Our hope was that, by allowing our operators to see how the war looked from inside other groups, and by building personal relationships, we could build between teams some of the fluency that traditionally exists within teams" (p. 176).

"It is necessary we found, to forcibly dismantle the old system and replace it with an entirely new managerial architecture. Our new architecture was shared consciousness, and it consisted of two elements. The first was extreme, participatory transparency – the "systems management" of NASA that we mimicked with our O&I forums and our open physical space. This allowed all participants to have a holistic awareness equivalent to the contextual awareness of purpose we already knew we had at a team level. The second was the creation of strong internal connectivity across teams – something we achieved with our embedding and liaison programs. This mirrored the trust that enabled our small teams to function" (p. 197). The role of the leader, interestingly, had reduced decision making (which was democratized) and greater visioning (to ensure the new processes and objectives were maintained): "Creating and leading a truly adaptive organization requires building, leading, and maintaining a culture that is flexible but also durable. The primary responsibility of the new leader is to maintain a holistic, big-picture view, avoiding a reductionist approach, no matter how tempting micromanaging may be. Perhaps an organization sells widgets – designing, building, and marketing them; that's still not where the leader is most needed. The leader's first responsibility is to the whole" (p. 231-232).

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Encountering Poverty

The 2016 book "Encountering Poverty: Thinking and Acting in an Unequal World" brings together some of the insights draw from teaching in a critical undergraduate program. Roy, Negron-Gonzales, Opoku-Agyemang and Talwalker offer something between an edited volume and an undergraduate textbook, while also offering critical reflexivity of their own roles and positionality. The target audience of the book was broad, potentially too broad. At times it seems best suited for undergraduate students, and at others educators. Nonetheless, for either of those two audiences, it is a book I recommend. What this book does very well, and I believe uniquely so, is offer critical engagement with international and community development studies, that moves beyond criticism. Far too often I've come across recent graduates of development studies programs who feel hopeless about the sector and disinterested in further engagement with it. About the book, Matthew Sparke wrote: "far from leading us to a place of paralysis and moralistic self-flagellation, the authors advance a more reflective and constructive approach, arguing that we can still take modest steps against massive global inequality even as we navigate its contradictions and complexities."

The point of engagement is elaborated by contrasting the position of anthropologist Li (author of The Will to Improve and Land's End) and their own: "we depart from Li on one significant matter of expertise and politics. Li (2007, 2) argues that the "positions of critic and programmer are properly distinct." She notes that programmers, those who are tasked with implementing development, "under pressure to program better… are not in a position to make programming itself an object of analysis" (p. 46)." To this, they state: "… we are reluctant to conclude such a firm separation between the trustees and recipients of development. Instead, we interpret the mediators and functionaries of development – from star economists to young volunteers – to be engaged in the battle of ideas. Instead of positioning critics as those situated outside of development, we seek to explore how those within the system can participate in such struggles. However, we do not want to overlook the fact that, often, the poor themselves are programmers of development, especially at the interface between bureaucracies of poverty and poor people's movements" (p. 46).

As someone who has written about the problematic nature of short-term, small-scale, donor-determined handouts, this book offers useful insight into whose voices drive the direction of community and international development activities. The authors write: "Dominant frames of global poverty and dominant models of global citizenship do not address the poverty of power. However, the long history of poor people's movements must be read as the insistence for dignity, voice, and power. After all, the impoverished of the world are not mobilizing in mass action to demand malarial bed nets or TOMS shoes" (p. 31).

Much of the book seeks to re-position, re-frame and re-orient the study and practice of international development, first by diagnosing its challenges in clear and concise ways, and then offering alternative paths: "The pull to eliminate poverty is not only insufficient but also misguided unless the attempts to do so are rooted in analysis that acknowledges that poverty is an integral part of the growth of capitalism, that it is mapped onto colonial histories, and that it is connected to global social movements" (p. 10). "What if, instead of the ladder of development, we were to recognize that the prosperity of wealthy places often depends on the impoverishment of other places and peoples? And, what if, following Polanyi, we were to realize that this is not the natural order of things but rather a system of extreme artificiality?" (p. 61-62)

"What we are striving to achieve is not just a disruption of the master narrative but a disruption of a kind of poverty action that is about feeling good and keeping everything exactly the same. We must disrupt the politics of benevolence that position the poverty actor as the savior and the impoverished as the lucky recipients of their charitable deeds. We must train young, enthusiastic people to be hopeful but realistic, self-reflective but not self-absorbed, and imbued with a sense of responsibility but no an inflated ego. The challenge for us, then, is to think about how we can prepare a team of poverty actors who will disrupt the old, problematic dynamics of poverty interventions, privilege, and power and who will envision and execute a new kind of poverty politics that focuses on the development of solidarities, not aid, and promotes an honest engagement with the dynamics of power, privilege, and responsibility that come along with this work." (p. 175-176)

Supported by the diversity of disciplines the authors bring to this book, there are discussions that are not common to works of this nature, but add important dimensions to the discourse, such as in philosophy and education:

  • "We could argue that this overwhelming tendency to focus on educating poor people and to ignore poor people's own views of their own problems is a symptom of middle-class paternalism. We could also argue that it is neoliberal, in that it focuses on individuals and personal responsibility and seemingly neglects the larger more long-term causes of inequity and inequality. These are valid and important cautionary points to make. But I want to suggest a related third point (a point bound up in these other two, as they are perhaps all ultimately determined by the current historical moment): that this tendency to focus on educating poor people is (also) a symptom of the widespread utilitarian approach to people and society. For utilitarianism focuses on individuals, and it does so instrumentally." (p. 133)
  • "Praxis posits that learning is not simply about individual fulfillment or deepening knowledge but rather about transformation, not only of the self but also of the world around us. Freire argued that learning without action is empty, and that we learn in order to act in the world around us, and that learning (and therefore also teaching) must be explicitly oriented toward this aim." (p. 163)

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Post-doc: Social Innovation

University of Waterloo - Institute for Social Innovation and Resiliance

One year fulltime postdoctoral fellowship: $50,000 annual salary, office and administrative support provided

Supervision by Frances Westley, McConnell Chair in Social Innovation, and Dan McCarthy, Director of the Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience (WISIR)

The University of Waterloo's Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience (WISIR) is offering a postdoctoral fellowship to start August 1, 2016 for one year. WISIR was founded as part of a national initiative funded by the J.W McConnell Family Foundation and is designed to build capacity for broad system change in Canada.

Currently, four specific areas of interest and commitment concerning WISIR are:

  • The challenges of indigenous innovation and engagement
  • Capacity building in the social profit sector - particularly the development of the skills and mindsets required for addressing increasingly complex social-ecological problems
  • The integration of art and science in stimulating innovative and breakthrough approaches to linked social-ecological systems
  • General theory of transformation and social innovation in linked social-ecological systems, with particular emphasis on historical cases

Qualified candidates must have a PhD (completed within the last five years), be familiar with complexity theory, social innovation theory and social-ecological transformation processes including such approaches as the Multi-Level Transition theories, and resilience theory approaches to adaptation and transformation. A strong research background and sound methodological training is a must. An ideal candidate will be interested in joining problem solving teams in writing proposals for research funding, leading teams researching social innovation, and collaborating on research articles for publication.

Review of applications will begin on July 11, 2016 and will continue until the position is filled. The position will start August 1, 2016

Please send curriculum vitae, one research paper and, two letters of reference with the subject line "Post-Doctoral Fellowship in Social Innovation" to: Nina Ripley, Office Coordinator at nmripley@uwaterloo.ca

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Navigating Complexity in International Development

Danny Burns and Stuart Worsley offer one of the best development studies reads of 2015 with their book "Navigating Complexity in International Development: Facilitating Sustainable Change at Scale." There are shelves of books that cover similar topics in development studies, with much repetition and little innovative thinking. Burns and Stuart offer just that by viewing the world and its systems as "complex, dynamic, and unpredictable" (p. xiv), and how international development needs to adjust to that. Particularly because development activities are "largely fixed, and tied firmly to preordained plans and change theories" (p. xiv). The result is that much of development action fails or is not sustainable. Their book offers practical examples about how this can change and offers methodological systems that can be employed in practice. A few thought provoking quotes:

The question is about how, not why or what:

  • "…the poorest and most marginalized were more concerned with how development was delivered, than what development was delivered. They said that there were already schools, hospitals, justice services, loan schemes, and so on but they didn't get access to them because they faced social and institutional discrimination" (p. 3).


  • "Inequality and injustice are constructed through power relations. By understanding how power works both generally and in specific contexts, it becomes possible to develop strategies for engaging with it, challenging it, and shifting it…people living in circumstances of extreme poverty and marginalization see the biggest impediment to equality and access to services as power relationships expressed as discriminatory social norms and institutional discrimination." (p. 151)

On tipping points:

  • "A tipping point is where all the pressure is building and suddenly change happens. Tipping points describe the straw that breaks the camel's back; the dam that bursts. If we were to look at the evidence we would observe that when we put a straw on the camel's back nothing happens. This evidence would suggest that it is possible to put straws on camels' backs indefinitely with no impact. But later one straw changes everything. Change is not necessarily proportional to the extent of an intervention. Nothing may appear to happen at all – even for decades – and then everything seems to change all at once. This is a non-linear pattern of change." (p. 28)

As Thornton and I have written, Burns and Worsley raise concerns about target-based assessments, which includes the MDGs and the various ranking forms:

  • "One of the difficulties of a target-based framework is that it creates systemic incentives for programme managers to focus on the 'low hanging fruit'. The target is most likely to be met if people who have simpler, less complex problems are engaged with, and as a result the poorest of the poor are mostly untouched by these initiatives. The system dynamics shape a set of incentives which in turn direct behavior." (p. 35)

On replication:

  • "Sustainable change does not then come from the transfer of something that is working in one place to another place; rather it lies in the amplification of micro-level interactions. To nurture these we need (a) to ensure that there is diversity at a local level and that any inquiry encompasses the diversity that exists within the system and (b) our focus needs to be on the most local level of interactions." (p. 30)

Moving ahead:

  • "Clothed in arguments of accountability and stewardship, the ever-increasing imposition of tight controls on development investment ensures that development programs will never deliver results where they are really needed. Successful development practice requires a fundamental change in thinking and behavior. It requires development investors and actors to navigate complexity through engagement with people, in ways that are responsive and emergent. This requires new levels of flexibility, a willingness to stop pushing top-down change agendas, and an acceptance that sustainable change within complex systems will result from good process rather than detailed plans." (p. 176)
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Logan Cochrane


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