Systems, stars and constellations
After a couple of months’ break – busy with preparing for the arrival of a new Executive Director at Global Integrity, and for my departure to lands as yet unclear – this open and adaptive update takes a slightly different approach. This time around, I’ll try to make some sense of the things that have caught my attention by making connections, clusters, perhaps even constellations, amongst them. My hope is that this approach will paint a picture that is richer than the sum of its shiny stars. Let’s see.
A first constellation of pieces that I’ve come across have been about systems, and more specifically about the importance of how we think about, talk about and engage with systems. I’ve been excited to come across the work of Alice M Evans, through some thoughts on systems coaching, and the problem with the system is … I’ve very much appreciated Alice’s reflections on the evolution of her systems coaching practice, and on the importance of moving beyond seeing systems as something that is separate from us, so that we can claim agency, take responsibility and make space for change. In a similar vein, Nat Kendall-Taylor and Bill Pitkin, from the Frameworks Institute, make the case that we need to talk about how we talk about systems change, emphasizing the importance of talking about systems, and the structural causes of social problems, in ways that avoid fatalism and communicate that individuals’ actions – even within complex systems – can and do make a difference.
A second constellation, with many stars, relates to monitoring, evaluation and learning, reflecting specifically on how learning – and what sorts of learning – can support the emergence of systems that are better able to address complex social challenges. One highlight in this constellation over recent months has been the M&E Sandbox discussions organized by Søren Haldrup at UNDP’s Strategic Innovation Unit; see How do we use M&E as a vehicle for learning? and Measurement and complexity: Why, how and for whom do we measure? for summaries and recordings of the excellent sessions, and keep an eye out for more to come. It’s also been interesting to look under the bonnet of the Centre for Public Impact’s efforts to make learning central to their work, courtesy of Katie Rose. Katie outlines how CPI is experimenting with moving beyond Objectives and Key Results, to also include learning goals that will enable them to explore how they can be a better partner – a learning partner – to the governments and public sector organizations they work with.
Related pieces that have caught my attention include be a participant, not a spectator, by Cathy Sharp at ResearchForReal in Scotland. This prize-winning piece draws on Cathy’s work on Collective leadership where nothing is clear and everything keeps changing and poses a series of “provocative propositions” to stimulate reflection and create an environment for collaboration, and learning, in the face of complex social challenges. A similar message is at the heart of the presentation made by Emily F Gates in a session organized by the Centre for the Evaluation of Complexity Across the Nexus, CECAN. In this session (video here), Emily makes the case that the role for evaluators in complex systems should be less about being expert judges, determining the value of interventions, and more about being co-learners, supporting other actors as they seek to nurture a better system that creates more value.
A third constellation is about adaptiveness, adoption and strategic innovation, specifically exploring how systemic learning can foster innovation, and how organizations can move innovations from the periphery to the core of their practice. Milica Begovic and Giulio Quaggiotto provide a helpful and reflective review on UNDP’s experience – supported by the Chôra Foundation – of pivoting to strategic innovation and trying to move towards a more transformational and systemic approach to innovation, using collective sense-making to harness the power of portfolios. This might sound grand, but it is simply about working with what is: taking fragmentation across projects and siloed ways of working as the starting point, and bringing people together to explore that landscape and make new connections across it, in order to generate fresh ideas – actionable intelligence – that might be put into practice. Milica and Giulio invite us to imagine a future in which “donors and recipients commit to jointly learning and adapting as an ongoing process, and collectively managing the uncertainty arising from a portfolio of interventions designed for long-term transformation together with people with lived experience”; a future which is hugely appealing, and which, it seems to me, is perhaps coming into being.
Also in this constellation – at least from where I sit – is a piece by Emma Proud about the overlap between adaptive management and innovation. Emma makes the case that adaptive management and innovation conversations and communities are both “grounded in the recognition that we need better (and not necessarily new) solutions to the complex problems in the world”. She also suggests that there is scope for mutual learning, as regards intentionally testing and experimenting with clear hypotheses (a strength in the innovation space), and – as Emma and Benjamin Kumpf put it in another piece on the the adoption of innovation – as regards moving promising practices “from the experimental edges of an organization to the core of its work”; a strength, perhaps, in the adaptive management space?
Beyond these constellations, I’ve been exploring a wider universe of ideas about complexity, systems, interconnections and learning. In the excessively hot weeks of the English Summer, I very much appreciated The web of meaning by Jeremy Lent. Jeremy seeks to integrate science and traditional wisdom to develop a way of seeing, and a way of being, that is all about interconnection (integrity, in the way I think of it), and in this way offers a hopeful path forward in the face of mounting environmental, social and economic crises. In a similar, but also very distinctive, vein, Tyson Yunkaporta’s Sand talk is a compelling set of explorations about how, as he puts it, indigenous thinking can save the world. I’m only part-way through, but am loving the yarns and the sand talk symbols about different ways of seeing, representing and dancing with complexity. One particular highlight is the emphasis on ways of being, or rules of thumb, to foster sustainable systems; connect, diversify, interact and adapt (p.98). There’s much promise in the fresh (to me at least) perspectives that Tyson offers, and their potential to shape the way that we think about, talk about, and engage with the systems that shape our lives, and whose dynamics we shift by the ways in which we live, and the connections that we make.