Systems and complexityTaking responsibility for complexity

Taking responsibility for complexity (section 2.6): Summary – Complex problems and the challenges they pose

This article is section 2.6 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.

Based on … [Sections 2.3-2.5], the reader should now have a greater understanding of what a complex problem is, and what aspects of complex problems make the implementation of traditional approaches less appropriate. More importantly, it should now be easier to see in what way and to what degree the implementation challenge presented to you is complex. Position on any of the three dimensions is likely to be a matter of degrees, with considerable grey areas between ‘stable’ and ‘uncertain’ causal knowledge for example. It is also likely that different aspects of a single intervention are simple, complicated or complex. However, making some judgement on these matters is an important step towards shaping implementation. Section 3 of this guide provides the principles, priorities and tools for meeting this challenge of complexity.

Before proceeding, there is one point worth considering: are there some issues, or aspects of certain issues, that can objectively be assigned as ‘complex’? Commentators have variously called for development as a whole1, the challenge of achieving growth2 and promoting governance3 to be seen as complex. In addition, many of the tools described below have been developed in areas such as NRM4, where there is a close link between, say, the environment and social goals – it could be that these issues have an added a layer of complexity, or that strong scientific modelling of the ecosystem and clearer interdependence of different dimensions makes it harder to deny the inherent complexity. This guide does not attempt to answer these questions, but it is worth bearing them in mind as we go.

The guide instead focuses on outlining the appropriate tools for different types of problem. The starting point is the three dimensions that mark how an issue presents itself to a particular organisation or institution attempting to tackle it. Arguments can be presented and evidenced as to whether responsibilities are distributed, causation is clear and goals are agreed; assessments can be made as to whether the side-effects of using traditional approaches to complex problems are visible. The following questions are provided to assist the reader in deciding whether their policy / programme is facing a complex problem.

The following questions may help you assess the extent to which your intervention faces a complex challenge in terms of the distribution of capacities:

  • Do the intended goals require working in collaboration with a variety of actors, or can they be achieved by one agency alone?
  • Does the intervention work across highly varied contexts? How well-understood is the functioning of the programme instruments in each different context where it is being applied?
  • Is it attempting to work with or through other actors, e.g. for service delivery, capacity building, etc.? To what extent can this work be readily understood by an ‘outsider’?
  • Would results be sustainable without the continued involvement of my agency? Who is meant to be responsible for continued work after the project, and what level of ‘ownership’ do they currently have of this task?

The following questions may help you assess the extent to which your intervention faces a complex challenge in terms of the predictability of change processes:

  • How well-known are the ingredients for achieving the changes which your intervention is aiming for? Can they be confidently mapped in advance, or is identifying ‘what works’ in your context generally only easy in retrospect?
  • To what extent will programmes need ongoing adaptation by implementing staff? Are change trajectories well-known or unpredictable? Are potential negative ‘side-effects’ of this type of intervention well-understood, or do they differ widely from place to place?
  • Are over-riding programme goals readily achievable within the allotted timeframe, or will you be more likely to achieve incremental outcomes? How clear is it, in advance, what these incremental outcomes might be, which could be readily achievable in the context, and when these changes represent ‘successes’?
  • To what extent can it be foreseen which programme activities will be most successful? Will there be an unpredictable pace of change in some areas, with periods of no discernible change followed by tipping points or windows for significant change?

The following questions may help you assess the extent to which your intervention faces a complex challenge in terms of the nature of the goals:

  • Is there broad agreement on the appropriate aims of your type of programme between stakeholders? Do different groups of stakeholders have preferences for achieving different goals? Are these goals likely to be achieved in tandem or will trade-offs need to be made along the way?
  • Is the central problem to be addressed defined in a similar way by most stakeholders, or are there contrasting and competing ideas of what is the ‘most important’ feature of an issue?
  • Does the academic literature revolve around stable, agreed bodies or knowledge, or do different conceptualisations compete? Is the available knowledge broadly consistent, or is there contestation in what counts as legitimate knowledge?

In the end, though, this assignment of ‘complexity’ is left open to judgement. This could be a matter of a new issue that existing institutional arrangements have not yet found a way of dealing with; it could be an essential and unavoidable feature of the issue; or it could be somewhere between the two. Going back to the original example of baking a cake, it might be that your oven is faulty, and the reaction should be to approach the baking of the cake in a different manner to begin with, by looking to learn how to use it. On the one hand, it could be that it misbehaves in a predictable manner, or requires a ‘dab hand’ to operate it, in which case it then becomes more like the ‘known’ or ‘knowable’ problems described above. On the other hand, it could behave entirely unpredictably, in which case baking would require a much more iterative, attentive approach.

When a problem is agreed as complex, there are clear implications for adjusting the way an organisation deals with it to take into account this complexity and ambiguity. It could be that, in the future, this same problem (or a part of it) can be dealt with in a more straightforward way. On the other hand, it could be that the problems persist, and capacities for dealing with complex problems will become increasingly important in the organisation.

Next part (section 3): Practical guidance for dealing with complexity.

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. (https://www.odi.org/sites/odi.org.uk/files/odi-assets/publications-opinion-files/6485.pdf). Republished under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 in accordance with the Terms and conditions of the ODI website.

References and notes:

  1. Rihani, S. (2005). ‘Complexity Theory: A New Framework for Development is in the Offing.’ Progress in Development Studies 5(1): 54-61.
  2. Beinhocker, E. (2006). The Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Press.
  3. Jessop, R. (2003). ‘The Governance of Complexity and the Complexity of Governance: Preliminary Remarks on Some Problems and Limits of Economic Governance.’ Lancaster: Department of Sociology, Lancaster University.
  4. Natural resource management.

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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