Managing in the face of complexitySystems & complexity

Managing in the face of complexity (part 5): Conclusions

This article is part 5 of a series of articles featuring the ODI Working Paper A guide to managing in the face of complexity.

This … [series] set out to help practitioners become aware of when they are facing complex situations; point out which precautions to take; outline some principles to consider when undertaking the task of managing in the face of complexity; and show that a variety of approaches could be  applied to managing complex situations or interventions in international development. Readers who are interested in exploring new methods and techniques, can draw on the sources of further information given at the end of the … [series]. We also recommend that experiences with applying tools, whether successful or not, should be shared more widely and be publicised1.

However, improved management in the face of complexity relies on more than awareness and knowledge of tools. There are at least three other barriers and enablers to more appropriate management practices.

First, there needs to be a shift in the mind-set of key decision-makers (e.g. donors, programme directors) to cope with the uncertainties of more complex tasks or realities, particularly in dealing with shared responsibilities foreseen by new aid architectures such as those promoted by the Paris Declaration. Decision-makers should depart from ‘command and control’ management traditions and be more open to adaptive approaches that are responsive to contextual changes and lessons learned from implementation. They should accept the need to deal more appropriately with messy situations and wicked problems and should not expect – nor demand – clear-cut solutions or ‘guaranteed’ routes. Instead of attempting to avoid risk and clinging to rigid plans, they should engage in risk management, because a limited and well-calculated approach to risk-taking during implementation can prove more effective. Last but not least, they should acknowledge the limited insights for individual decision-making in a cooperation system, embracing collaborative management approaches and building on the self-organising capacities of partners.

Second, such a shift in mind-sets must be translated into new procedures and more adaptive management tools. At the top level, there needs to be increased attention on the management tasks involved in delivering aid, recognising that the need for sustained, expert input does not end with the disbursal of funding. In addition, there needs to be an increased use of the tools suggested above, as appropriate to circumstances. This does not necessarily mean a complete break with current practice: many of the approaches or techniques outlined above can be integrated into existing management systems to render them more flexible (see box 3). Agencies will need to accommodate greater variation across management and performance frameworks in order to allow tools to be chosen according to the challenges faced. For example, there should be different  expectations of departments dealing with fluid or uncertain contexts (e.g. working in fragile states), or reconciling divergent goals and interests in change processes (e.g. promoting political settlements for good governance), to those dealing with more simple or static situations (e.g. working in a country with a stable government that has clearly articulated long-term priorities).

Finally, prevailing incentives and agency systems need to alter, particularly on resource allocation and accountability. As a rule of thumb, a more adaptive approach in management should be complemented by more flexibility. Decentralisation of decision-making should give those who are expected to manage for outcomes the autonomy to do so, including flexibility on activities, resources and outcomes. Current practice and rules with respect to performance / results-based management should be revised to counteract their often perverse effects in complicated or complex situations (e.g. through delegating decision-making on budgeting or modifying activities). And quality control should be understood in a sense that is broader and more compatible with the realities of cooperation systems, providing tools and incentives that allow effective management for results in collaborative development interventions. For example, they should ensure that there are incentives for technical staff to give sustained inputs to programmes throughout implementation.

Next part (part 6): Additional useful resources.

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. Editor’s note: RealKM Magazine is seeking to do this through our case studies in complexity series and a range of other articles.
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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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