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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Enemies of Innovation

Dr. Calestous Juma's new book, "Innovation and its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies" (2016), explains that this is a book Dr. Juma has wanted to write since his early engagement with innovation. That includes his founding of the African Centre for Technology Studies in 1988, being a former Executive Secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and co-chair of the African Union's High-level Panel on Science, Technology and Innovation and his current role of Director of the Science, Technology and Globalization Project at Harvard. He is an avid Twitter user, for anyone interested to follow his work.

For some readers, this book is bound to be cause for (critical) self-reflection. For example, Juma opens with the introduction of mobile phones – technology that has potential health risks, yet has been universally adopted and enabled additional innovations in a range of sectors, from banking and health to education and communication. He contrasts that with biotechnology and transgenetic crops, which also has potential health risks, but "has been marked by controversy that resulted in international treaties negotiated to regulate trade" (p. 2). Juma explains that the book "argues that technological controversies often arise from tensions between the need to innovate and the pressure to maintain continuity, social order and stability" (p. 5). The book is about technology and innovation, but also the socio-cultural and economic structures that enable or deter innovation, and why these exist.

The book covers a range of different technological innovations (farm mechanization, printing press, coffee, margarine, electricity, refrigeration, recorded sound, transgenetic crops, and genetically engineered salmon). The focus is not for or against, or weighing costs and benefits, of technologies, rather it is the broader context within which these innovations exist that Juma focuses upon: "Many of these debates over new technologies are framed in the context of risks to moral values, human health, and environmental safety. But behind these genuine concerns often lie deeper, but unacknowledged, socioeconomic considerations. This book demonstrates the extent to which these factors shape and influence technological controversies, which specific emphasis on the role of social institutions' (p. 6).

Juma concludes each chapter with lessons learned about each innovation, ranging from policy to regulation and politics and economics. As such, it may have appeal to a range of audiences. Consider this reflection: "Margarine represents one of the best examples of incumbent industries using legislative instruments to curtail or extinguish new technologies" (p. 117). Or, "the case of refrigeration shows that, contrary to popular belief, regulation can serve as a stimulus for innovation. In this case, many of the advances that made it possible for consumers to access safe and mechanical refrigeration resulted from regulation and new standards" (p. 198). The historical cases are less contested, as the debates have long since ended. I found the last two examples Juma presents (transgenetic crops and genetically engineered salmon) particularly interesting as they are yet to be settled. While the presentation of the issues and Juma's broader work situates his own positionality, these two chapters explore multiple sides of the on-going debates (not only the pro/con positions, but also the challenges faced by regulatory bodies and economic impacts related to export markets). On these on-going debates, Juma concludes that as "the world leader in biotechnology research, innovation and commercialization, the United States could set an example in the regulation of biotechnology innovations to ensure that society derives the highest possible benefit from these technologies in the safest possible way" (p. 277-278).

One component of the argument that Juma do not entertain in much detail is that of choice, and here an interesting analogy could also have been drawn to transgenetic crops. For those opposed to GM food crops, one of the key issues is choice, and thus advocacy for labeling to have the option to purchase GM or not. Embedded within this debate is that GM crops cannot be contained entirely, and spread (and therefore entire bans are advocated). While there are important considerations to be addressed regarding these concerns, it is interesting that mobile phone technology was not given as a parallel: one can choose not to purchase a mobile phone, but it is almost impossible to avoid exposure to electromagnetic radiation because of societal choices (the level differs, as it would with labeling options that allow for a small percentage of GM to be present in non-GM items).

The book concludes with notes on leaders and leadership: "The next frontier of leadership will focus largely on how society is prepared to respond not only to global grand challenges but also to new social problems generated by technological advancement and engineering applications. Leaders will need to be more adaptive, flexible, and open to continuous learning. They will be called upon increasingly to take decisions in the face of uncertainty and amid controversy" (p. 285-286).

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Ibrahim Leadership Fellowships

The application process for the 2017 Ibrahim Leadership Fellowships Programme is now open.

Through this annual fellowship programme, we seek to deepen and broaden our growing network which continues to contribute its skills and learning to a better Africa. The Fellowships offer the opportunity to work in the executive offices of either the African Development Bank (Abidjan), the UN Economic Commission for Africa (Addis Ababa) or the International Trade Centre (Geneva).

Application process

  • Process opens 12 August 2016
  • applications due 14 October 2016
  • successful candidate notified January 2017
  • press announcement of Fellows 3 February 2017
  • Fellows start date May 2017.

Eligibility criteria

  • National of an African country
  • 7-10 years of relevant work experience
  • master's degree
  • under the age of 40, or 45 for women with children
  • any additional criteria as set by the host.
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6 Post-docs at Royal Roads (Canada)


  • Working with Dr. Brian Belcher, Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Sustainability Research Effectiveness, the post-doc will focus on research to assess the effectiveness and the impact of transdisciplinary research (TDR) for improved livelihoods, community resilience, and environmental sustainability.
  • Working with Dr. Ann Dale, Professor in the School of Environment and Sustainability, the post-doc will explore the intersections between sustainable community development and climate change adaptation and mitigation innovations both on-the-ground and policy development in Canada.
  • Working with Dr. Jaigris Hodson, Assistant Professor and Program Head in the College of Interdisciplinary Studies, the post-doc will focus on new mobile social communication platforms such as Instagram, Kik, WeChat, and SnapChat, and how to keep young people using these technologies safe from online predators.
  • Working with Dr. Elizabeth Hartney, Registered Psychologist, Professor and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research (CHLR), the post-doc will contribute to leadership research and knowledge mobilization toward increasing patient and family centred care in the BC healthcare system.
  • Working with Dr. George Veletsianos, Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Innovative Learning and Technology, the post-doc will focus on emerging technologies and innovations in online education, in particular open education, open/digital scholarship, and social media/networks.
  • Working with Dr. Robin Cox, Professor and Disaster and Emergency Management Program Head, the post-doc will have the opportunity to work on multiple research projects focused on disaster recovery and resilience and the psychosocial implications of disasters for individual well-being and public health.
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Logan Cochrane


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