Managing in the face of complexitySystems & complexity

Managing in the face of complexity (part 4.8): Appropriate approaches – 8. Networked management and co-management

This article is part 4.8 of a series of articles featuring the ODI Working Paper A guide to managing in the face of complexity.

This section [parts 4.1 to 4.8 of the series] outlines specific methods that can be used for managing in the face of complexity. Most of these approaches were originally developed in corporate business, where the shortcomings of centralised ‘command and control’ models were first noted, but have since spread into public sector management. These approaches are aligned with the general principles for managing complex interventions outlined … [in the previous parts of this series], but each has a specific focus and is tailored for particular circumstances or purposes.

8. Networked management and co-management

A network approach to management, which has improved cost-effectiveness, timeliness and productivity in some contexts, involves granting considerable individual autonomy and integrating various channels for participation in key decision-making processes1. Research shows the importance of defining roles sharply but giving teams latitude on approach, or ‘role clarity and task ambiguity’ 2. There needs to be strong relationship management to strengthen social capital and institutional links between actors as the need for their coordination or collaboration emerge. Experiences with organisational participation shows that attempts to tackle problems in a decentralised manner must be supported by training in relationship skills, such as communication and conflict resolution3.

Managers may find themselves working with a variety of institutions, engaging service providers and other organisations, and collaborating with a variety of actors who have the capacity, knowledge and legitimacy to address a particular problem4. It is important, where possible, for relationships with these different players to be fair partnerships based on shared principles, values and aims rather than contractual arrangements.

Principles from networked management have been integrated into ‘co-management’, an approach for managing natural resources. This involves government agencies sharing powers and responsibilities with local organisations and groups5. It emerged organically in response to many natural resource management problems in which government officials have the authority to take decisions but lack the requisite local knowledge and also the capacity to ensure compliance with their decisions6. Co-management allows the policy response to a complex problem to capitalise on the effectiveness of various organisations, proceeding through cooperation between those with authority and representative organisations.

Box 3: integrating approaches with existing tools and frameworks

The Logframe approach popular with many development programmes can be adapted to complex situations by using different formats or styles: either by making changes to the matrix (e.g. modifying the rows and columns) or by abandoning the matrix altogether, allowing for better visualization while retaining the basic elements (e.g. moving from a tabular structure to diagrams, like the increasingly popular Logic Models). Stakeholder perspectives can be captured by working with Logframes in a more participatory manner and by representing the different logics at play (e.g. through separate or nested Logframes). Planning and strategy development in the face of complexity contains proposals for capturing the actor dimension in Logframes and rendering them more responsive, so they can also be used in complicated or complex situations.

Project management tools can be expanded to show the multiple inter-relationships within projects and with their respective context (e.g. through the use of mapping techniques or Social Network Analysis). The dynamics in a project and its context can be captured through a process view that connects the various tasks and levels in a coherent manner. Process-oriented project management combining hard and soft factors (e.g. culture, mental models), allows us to identify supportive factors as well as obstacles and can be used to structure appropriate communication and information flows.

Next part (part 5): Conclusions.

See also these related series:

Article source: Hummelbrunner, R. and Jones, H. (2013). A guide to managing 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: pxherePublic Domain.


  1. Heller, F., Pusic, E., Strauss, G. and Wilpert, B. (1998). Organizational Participation: Myth
    and Reality. New York: Oxford University Press.
  2. Gratton, L. and Erikson, E. (2007). ‘Eight Ways to Build Collaborative Teams.’ Harvard
    Business Review, 85(11): 101-109.
  3. Harvard Business Review (2009). Collaborating Across Silos. Boston: MA Harvard Business Press.
  4. Kamarck, E. (2007). The End of Government … As We Know It: Making Public Policy Work. Boulder, CO: Lynne Reinner.
  5. Carlsson, L., and Berkes, F. (2005). ‘Co-management: Concepts and Methodological Implications.’ Journal of Environmental Management, 75: 65-76.
  6. Brondizio, E., Ostrom, E. and Young, O. (2009). ‘Connectivity and the Governance of Multilevel Social-ecological Systems: The Role of Social Capital.’ Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 34: 253-278.
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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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