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Applying Complexity-Aware Monitoring Approaches

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FHI 360’s Advancing the FIELD conference on September 11-12, 2014 featured a series of ‘disruptive’ speakers who provided USAID staff and development practitioners with insights into systems and complexity thinking. Marking the conclusion of the nine-year FIELD-Support LWA, the conference offered an opportunity for sincere and deep reflection on innovative ways forward in international development, applying systems and complexity thinking.

Peter Senge kicked off the conference in his keynote talk by defining systems thinking as a way of seeing the world as a web of interdependence. “Life is interdependence,” he explains. Systems thinking is embedded in human instincts. Western formal education—forged in an era of linear progress and shaped by classical logic—blots out our innate systems intelligence, he adds.

Throughout the conference, an underlying tension and confusion prevailed in distinguishing between systems thinking and complexity thinking. In a conversation with the Knowledge Driven Agricultural Development project (KDAD), prominent complexity theorist Dave Snowden explains the difference: Systems dynamics is set as an ideal future state where we are trying to close the gap, whereas complexity thinking holds that to “maintain a dynamic agility,” we must manage the “evolutionary potential of the present in real time.” In other words, although systems thinking can be a practicable management framework, it faces limitations in the complex field of development. For example, poverty traps are formulated through an interlocking set of factors: vulnerability, isolation, and systemic disempowerment. This is why—by its very nature—efforts to systemically eradicate poverty are based in complexity. The well-known concept of “do no harm” reminds us of the importance of managing and controlling for unintended consequences that arise in uncertain conditions.

Complexity thinking is applied to projects by designing them to adapt to emergent needs where cause and effect relationships are uncertain and unpredictable. At the Advancing the FIELD conference, Snowden introduced the Cynefin framework, which may help development practitioners to identify a more flexible approach to managing projects. 


While the Cynefin framework can be helpful in managing development projects, most of which are implemented in complex environments, Snowden cautioned that increasing the likelihood of successful outcomes depends on recognizing that such environments do not present causal relationships. In a panel discussion with Snowden, Bruce Watluck, President of Freethink for a Change, offered advice from his 15 years of experience teaching and applying methods from the field of complex systems: "Learn to surf these waves of uncertainty. Be prepared to fail and to get back up again."

Great! Now how can we turn complexity theory into practice? An October 2011 USAID Complexity Event identified several tools, including a Mintzberg tracking model, systems mapping, and design thinking. The Complexity-Aware M&E Team in USAID’s Bureau for Policy, Planning, and Learning has also developed a Complexity-Aware Monitoring worksheet with six simple questions to assist staff and partners in defining the purpose, scope, and intended uses for implementing complexity-aware monitoring approach trials. A paper by the Overseas Development Institute also outlines several tools for synthesizing multiple perspectives.

USAID’s shift toward complexity thinking is strongly reinforced by decades of iterative learning. Where systems thinking is embedded in human instincts, complexity thinking is embedded in the instincts of development practitioners. Over the course of decades, many development practitioners have found that traditional tools have often fallen short of capturing key aspects of development challenges. As Harry Jones of the Overseas Development Institute explains in his June 2011 paper, Taking Responsibility for Complexity, the complexity aware monitoring approach is just the right tool for the job.