Complexity season

complexityAlthough discussions on ‘complexity’ never really waned,  lately the topic seems to gain momentum and attention as never before. Just to name a few: Within the Outcome Mapping Learning Community an interesting discussion is going on about the use of Outcome Mapping for complex situation; ODI has released a background note on ‘Planning and strategy development in the face of complexity’, and last but not least, Ben Ramalingam will soon launch his new book ‘Aid on the Edge of Chaos: rethinking international cooperation in a complex world’. This launch is taking place on 6 november 2013 and can be attended online. Do not miss it, it is for sure going to be interesting.

One of the questions that was posed in the Outcome Mapping Learning Community was what the added value was of using Outcome Mapping in complex systems, or in more general terms ‘what is the use of planning when facing complexity’. The ODI background note, written by Hummelbrunner and Jones, answers this question (and other questions) quite nicely.

Hummelbrunner and Jones reason that a situation is complex when there is a) no clear advance knowledge on how to tackle the issue at hand, we do not know what interventions could be useful and/or we do not know how contexts and trends will influence the issue (uncertainty); and b) no agreement among actors about what to do (disagreement) (see also Kurtz and Snowden, 2003; Patton, 2011 etc). In addition they add a third characteristic: the distribution of knowledge and capacities [I would rather add the dimension of ‘systemic stability’ instead, but for the sake of space and time I  will come back to that discussion in another blog.]

They state that planning does not become obsolete in the face of complexity, but requires different approaches and formats. First of all they reason (as Rogers, 2008 and Wilson-Grau, 2013) that not all aspects of a situation are complex. Secondly, for the aspects of a situation that are complex, they reckon that plans should be adaptive to incorporate new developments, challenges and opportunities since a large part of the information needed is generated along the way.

Setting learning objectives may be as important as performance objectives, and interventions should in their view be designed to actively test hypotheses. This means short feedback cycles are needed (see also Patton, 2011) to regularly adapt plans. They suggest moving from static to dynamic planning, from prescriptive to flexible planning modes and from comprehensive to diversified planning.

In their note they present various planning approaches that are appropriate for complex aspects of situations, ranging from scenario techniques to assumption-based planning, adaptive strategy development and outcome mapping.

In my view this is an excellent background note, and very timely.  So let us embrace uncertainty and realise  that ‘without any planning on where to go, the chances are smaller we eventually get anywhere’. The focus however could move from ‘front-loaded’ planning to learning and adapting on the road.

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