Planning and strategy development in the face of complexitySystems & complexity

Planning and strategy development in the face of complexity series (part 6): Tailoring approaches to complex situations – Core principles

This article is part 6 of a series of articles featuring the ODI Background Note A guide for planning and strategy development in the face of complexity.

The Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation tools used most widely in international development (Logical Framework, Project Cycle Management) often display a combination of the assumptions discussed above that make them less appropriate for complex situations, especially when they are used in a mechanistic manner. Therefore, if we have found that our project, programme or policy is facing a complex problem according to the criteria set out above, there may well be a need to approach planning processes differently.

Planning does not become obsolete in the face of complexity, but it does require different approaches and formats. The key function of plans is not to elaborate details of a situation expected in the future, but to provide a basis and guide for decision-making throughout the course of the intervention. Plans should not, therefore, lay tracks towards a desired future that must be rigidly followed. They should, instead, be sufficiently adaptive to incorporate new developments, challenges and opportunities. The task for a team responsible for planning is to provide the necessary guidance and leadership, communicating a vision of change around which responses can emerge.

In general terms, planning should be participatory, involving the key partners of the respective cooperation system and taking into account the main perspectives from which the intervention can be framed. It should be based on an initial analysis of the main influencing factors and contextual conditions. But a large part of the information needed for implementation is generated along the way, making it essential that plans are more adaptive to unfolding realities.

The following three principles form the basis of planning approaches that are more appropriate when the three planning challenges outlined above indicate situations of increased complexity:

The relevance of these principles can be seen in connection with any or all of the three planning challenges.

  • Interventions facing high uncertainty are likely to find all three sets of principles useful, but particularly flexible planning modes. Experiments and short feedback cycles might be an appropriate way forward where there is agreement about the problem, what to do and how, but uncertainty about the success of an intervention. Planning should then be rather focused, with short time horizons.
  • Interventions facing divergence are likely to find dynamic planning approaches useful. A focus on what is actually unfolding and testing initial assumptions in an open learning attitude can help to clarify divergent opinions. But reducing disagreement about what to do may mean looking more intensely for expert knowledge or relevant experience gained elsewhere.
  • Interventions facing distributed capacities can probably make good use of diversified planning approaches. Ownership and responsibility can be strengthened by distributing planning tasks throughout a cooperation system, if the planning domain matches the boundaries for accountability. Where there is disagreement among partners (or uncertainties about what to do) testing a range of options, carrying out experiments in a variety of settings and reflecting openly about the experience gained might be an appropriate way forward.

Next part (part 7): Move from static to dynamic planning.

See also these related series:

Article source: Hummelbrunner, R. and Jones, H. (2013). A guide for planning and strategy development in the face of complexity. London: ODI. ( Republished under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 in accordance with the Terms and conditions of the ODI website.

Header image source: rawpixel on PixabayPublic Domain.

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Richard Hummelbrunner and Harry Jones

Authors of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) papers "A guide for planning and strategy development in the face of complexity" and "A guide to managing in the face of complexity".

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