Systems & complexityTaking responsibility for complexity

Taking responsibility for complexity (section 1): Introduction

This article is section 1 of a series of articles featuring the ODI Working Paper Taking responsibility for complexity: How implementation can achieve results in the face of complex problems.

It has long been recognised that social, economic and political change is complex, presenting a variety of challenges for governments and organisations looking to influence it1,2. Meanwhile, in the face of such complex problems, traditional approaches to implementing policies and programmes seem to be shrinking in importance3. However, there is no real consensus on what can replace them – without an alternative set of tools, those charged with implementing policies and programmes do not have much option but to stick with their traditional approaches while acknowledging their shortcomings.

In recent years, an area of academic development known as the complexity sciences has attempted to improve our understanding in this regard. Thus far, ‘complexity’ has provided a valuable framework for explanations as to why a variety of tools commonly used in policy-making and governance are not appropriate for tackling certain types of problems. However, there has been no real effort to use it robustly to propose alternatives (with some notable exceptions4). The literature attempting to provide practical solutions is quite dispersed and narrow in scope, and has often failed to convincingly link the proposed solution to the problem of complexity.

The Overseas Development Institute’s (ODI’s) Research and Policy in Development (RAPID) programme’s interest in complexity comes from its experience in working to understand the influence of research on policy and to help a variety of actors to bridge the two – given that processes of policy change, and the influence of research on them, are highly complex. RAPID has been developing practical tools for managing complexity for some time (such as tools for planning, monitoring and evaluating policy influence, e.g. facilitating networks to improve research–policy linkages). It has become clear that, while a variety of tools exist for dealing with complexity, they are often not joined together. In addition, there are major difficulties in marrying these approaches with mainstream ways of shaping policy and practice in development agencies and elsewhere.

This [series] … is an attempt to fill the gaps outlined here. Initiatives to pull together a coherent picture of policy design and implementation for complex problems already exist (e.g. the New Synthesis Project); this [series] … draws in this emerging picture with a focus on international development. It looks at the academic and grey literature, as well as using discussions with experts in the field and the experiences and reflections of practitioners engaged every day in dealing with complex problems. The [series] … is aimed at a variety of actors, in particular:

  • Decision-makers with the responsibility for shaping policy implementation in government ministries and development agencies, including within departments intended to support development work (e.g. working on performance frameworks, project approval and compliance). For these actors, it is hoped the [series] … will bring the beginnings of an alternative to the tried, tested and often failing frameworks of new public management.
  • Individuals working with knowledge in government agencies and elsewhere, for example in evaluation, research and knowledge management. For these, it is hoped the [series] … will provide an advocacy tool to demonstrate the importance of their work, as well as suggestions on how to mould what they do to the needs of complex problems.
  • Advisors and managers working with governments in developing countries. For these, it is hoped the [series] … will highlight some areas where they can better implement policies and programmes in a ways that are appropriate for complex problems.

This [series] … is structured in two parts, first discussing the problem and second providing recommendations. Section 2 outlines what is meant by complexity, precisely what problems it poses for implementation and how traditional approaches are not suitable for complex problem. Section 3 discusses priorities, principles and tools for shaping policy and programme implementation in the face of complexity. Readers pressed for time, or already convinced of the need for policy to adapt to meet the challenge of complexity, should focus on Section 3. Section 4 concludes.

Next part (section 2.1): When is a problem complex?

See also these related series:

Article source: Jones, H. (2011). Taking responsibility for complexity: How implementation can achieve results in the face of complex problems. Overseas Development Institute (ODI) Working Paper 330. London: ODI. ( Republished under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 in accordance with the Terms and conditions of the ODI website.


  1. Beinhocker, E. (2006). The Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Press.
  2. Rihani, S. (2005). ‘Complexity Theory: A New Framework for Development is in the Offing.’ Progress in Development Studies 5(1): 54-61.
  3. Bourgon, J., with Milley, P. (2010). ‘The New Frontiers of Public Administration: The New Synthesis Project.’ Waterloo: University of Waterloo.
  4. Swanson, D. and Bhadwal, S. (eds) (2009). Creating Adaptive Policies: A Guide for Policy Making in an Uncertain World. Winnipeg and Ottawa: IISD and IDRC.
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Harry Jones

Author of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) paper "Taking responsibility for complexity: How implementation can achieve results in the face of complex problems."

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