Systems & complexityTaking responsibility for complexity

Taking responsibility for complexity (section 3.1.7): Leadership and facilitation

This article is part of section 3.1 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.

Even with a complex problem where the capacity to tackle issues is distributed, an agency, individual or organisation can still look to drive action on an issue – but must employ different tools. Leadership emerges as a critical variable in driving and shaping collaborative responses to problems.

For example, a review of the empirical literature on management of watershed partnerships shows that leadership was the second-most-frequent factor in successful adaptive governance and collaboration (behind adequate funding)1. Recent work reviewing our understanding of systems of knowledge and action highlights leadership as one of the four key pillars of success2,3. In adaptive governance, leaders have proven to fulfil the function of agenda setters, popularising issues and lining up support by building trust; linking actors and initiating partnerships; and managing conflict4. Without such leadership, there can be inertia and a lack of collaboration in the face of complex problems5.

A different kind of approach must be taken to leadership in complex problems. While command and control may work in systems with relatively stable cause and effect linkages, in the face of complex problems leadership must rely more on facilitation and empowerment, promoting ownership and catalysing self-organisation6. This opens up new channels and spaces for an organisation to attempt to pursue its goals, influencing actors over which it holds no formal authority (on a horizontal as well as vertical level). Attention must be paid to managing relationships as well as meeting tasks, and leaders may need to display the kinds of behaviours they wish to inspire in others (e.g. collaboration and sharing)7.

This is similar to concepts of ‘soft power’ 8, where actors attempt to achieve goals through attraction and cooption rather than coercion, and ‘servant leadership’ where leaders view their task as that of serving others, looking to enable followers to become wiser, more autonomous, and better able to serve9. Drath et al.10 argue that leading on a goal or issue needs to focus on working towards three key outcomes: direction (widespread agreement on overall goals, aims and mission); alignment (of the organisation and coordination of knowledge and work); and commitment (willingness of members of a collective to subsume their individual interests).

One of the central tasks of leading on an issue then becomes communicating a compelling vision of the required change 11. This is about strategically framing an issue, and developing and communicating new ways of conceptualising a problem and its solution. Strategic framing and discourse is a central technique of social movements, used to catalyse processes of empowerment and action. The language used to convey a new idea or practice can shape the audience’s understanding of the problem, the impetus for action and the scope of options available for redress or change. For example, the adaptation of notions of women’s empowerment derived from highly individualistic Northern contexts to more collectively oriented but hierarchal Asian contexts involved a creative reframing of feminist demands. Calls for equal employment rights in East Asia have typically been couched as ‘maximising women’s human resources for national development’ or as ‘male protection laws,’ in the sense that they would preclude men from having to shoulder responsibility for household wellbeing alone12,13.

When delegating work within an agency, this task then becomes one of collaboratively building a shared, motivational vision, and then using it to set the central goals or direction of an initiative, around which innovative responses and behaviours can emerge14.

Next part (section 3.1.8): Incremental intervention.

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.

References and notes:

  1. Leach W. and Pelkey N. (2001). ‘Making Watershed Partnerships Work: A Review of the Empirical Literature.’ Journal of Water Resources. Planning and Management 127(6): 378-385.
  2. Holmes, B. (2010). ‘Systems Thinking, Knowledge and Action: Towards Better Models and Methods.’ Evidence and Policy 6(2): 145-159.
  3. Alongside evidence and knowledge, organisational networks and communication.
  4. Folke, C., Hahn, T., Olsson, P. and Norberg, J. (2005). ‘Adaptive Governance of Socio-ecological Systems.’ Annual Review of Environment and Resources 30: 441-473.
  5. Scheffer, M., Westley, F. and Brock, W. (2003). ‘Slow Response of Societies to New Problems: Causes and Costs.’ Ecosystems 6(5): 493-502.
  6. Snowden, D. and Boone, M. (2007). ‘A leader’s Framework for Decision Making.’ Harvard Business Review 85(11): 68-76.
  7. Gratton, L. and Erikson, E. (2007). ‘Eight Ways to Build Collaborative Teams.’ Harvard Business Review 85(11): 101-109.
  8. Nye, J. (2004). Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. Public Affairs: New York.
  9. Greenleaf, R. K. (1991). The servant as leader. Westfield, IN: The Robert K. Greenleaf Center.
  10. Drath, W., McCauley, C., Palus, C., Van Velsor, E., O’Connor, P., and McGuire, J. (2008). ‘Direction, alignment, commitment: Toward a more integrative ontology of leadership’ The Leadership Quarterly, 19, 635-653.
  11. Best, A and Holmes, B (2010). Systems thinking, knowledge and action. Evidence and Policy, 6(2): 145-149.
  12. Jones, N. (2006). Gender and the Political Opportunities of Democratization in South Korea. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  13. Forsyth (2003), in his work on ‘critical political ecologies,’ cautions, however, that strategic framing by social movement activists can also have a potentially negative side, through the misuse of scientific facts. As a result, it can be important to critically assess the power dynamics underlying the creation of scientific knowledge and ‘facts’. Forsyth, T. (2003). Critical Political Ecology: The Politics of Environmental Science. London: Routledge; Keeley, J. and Scoones, I. (1999). ‘Understanding Environmental Policy Processes: A Review.’ Working Paper 89. Sussex: IDS.
  14. Chapman, J. (2004). System Failure: Why Governments Must Learn to Think Differently. London: DEMOS.
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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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