Systems & complexity

Case studies in inappropriate responses in the face of complexity

Dave Snowden is well-known to the knowledge management (KM) community for his work on complexity science. This includes the creation of Cynefin framework, a highly-regarded decision and analytical framework. In mid-October, Dave Snowden posted a series of four Tweets in regard to how managers and organisations should move forward in the face of complexity:

In this RealKM Magazine article, I will discuss two case studies of where organisations from an example sector – natural resource management (NRM) in Australia – haven’t followed the guidance in these Tweets. I will explore why this happened, and the negative consequences. From this analysis, I will then suggest lessons for consideration by other organisations and those who lead and work with them.

Zealously embracing a management fad

In November 2000, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) initiated a new regional delivery model for funding under the Australian Government’s two flagship natural resource management (NRM) programs – the Natural Heritage Trust (NHT) and National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality (NAP). The NHT and NAP sought to address the degradation of natural and rural landscapes. As stated1 in a 2006 Senate inquiry report:

The principal driver underpinning the regional delivery model for NRM is to ‘harness the capacity of those closest to the problem on the ground’, building on local knowledge, experience and expertise and enabling flexible and responsive solutions to local NRM challenges.

As the 2000s progressed, there was a dramatic rise in the exploration and adoption of new and different management and operational approaches by regional NRM bodies as they sought to maximise the delivery of outcomes from the NHT and NAP investment. As I’ve previously discussed2 in RealKM Magazine, the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) was repeatedly critical of the inability of the NHT to be able to demonstrate outcomes for what would end up being nearly $3 billion in investment. The new and different management and operational approaches were developed, promoted, and supported by universities and other research agencies, the Australian Government, state and territory government agencies, and non-government NRM networks and organisations.

One of these approaches was Bayesian networks3. Their use was proposed by the Landscape Logic research hub, which was established under the Commonwealth Environmental Research Facilities program and hosted by the University of Tasmania’s Centre for Environment. Landscape Logic operated as a partnership between six regional NRM bodies, five research institutions, and state land management agencies in Tasmania and Victoria.

Landscape Logic proposed4 the use of Bayesian networks in NRM because “Bayesian networks offer assistance to decision-makers working in complex and uncertain domains.” Supporting this, research shows that Bayesian networks are a useful modelling tool in the face of complexity5 and uncertainty6. However, Landscape Logic also recognised limitations in the use of this approach in NRM, and as we’ve discussed in a previous RealKM Magazine article, Bayesian networks are also open to abuse and can facilitate confirmation bias.

Further, absolutely nowhere in any of the vast body of literature on complexity reviewed by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) for the four comprehensive literature reviews that we’ve serialised7,8,9,10 for RealKM Magazine is there even one mention of Bayesian networks. Rather, when facing complexity, this significant body of research overwhelmingly supports open participatory approaches that allow leaders to encourage dissent and diversity and the emergence of ways forward. This is also what Dave Snowden advocates. In their highly-cited Harvard Business Review article “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making”11, Dave Snowden and Mary E. Boone advise that the following tools can be used to manage in a complex context:

  • Open up the discussion. Complex contexts require more interactive communication than any of the other domains.
  • Set barriers. Barriers limit or delineate behavior. Once the barriers are set, the system can self-regulate within those boundaries.
  • Stimulate attractors. Attractors are phenomena that arise when small stimuli and probes (whether from leaders or others) resonate with people.
  • Encourage dissent and diversity. Dissent and formal debate are valuable communication assets in complex contexts because they encourage the emergence of well-forged patterns and ideas.
  • Manage starting conditions and monitor for emergence. Because outcomes are unpredictable in a complex context, leaders need to focus on creating an environment from which good things can emerge, rather than trying to bring about predetermined results and possibly missing opportunities that arise unexpectedly.

Following on from the extensive body of literature reviewed by the ODI, these tools are also now being reflected in emerging literature12 which considers social-ecological systems as complex adaptive systems.

This isn’t to say that Bayesian networks have no place in NRM decision-making, but that they are a very long way from being the most desirable way of dealing with complexity in NRM. An example of the benefits of the tools put forward by Snowden and Boone in comparison to Bayesian networks can be seen in my own work on a major government project, where I rejected the Bayesian networks approach in favour of a open participatory forum with dissent and diversity that successfully enabled the emergence of a way forward.

But, despite the overwhelming body of evidence advocating other, much more appropriate approaches, I witnessed a number of regional NRM bodies zealously trying to adopt the Bayesian network approach as the wonder miracle solution to just about every problem, complex or otherwise, that they were facing. In doing so, these regional NRM bodies consumed significant amounts of human and other resources pursuing an approach that was never going to be the best way of managing in the face of complexity.

These regional NRM bodies had zealously embraced something with many of the qualities of a “management fad.” As Professors Danny Miller and Jon Hartwick write in a 2002 Harvard Business Review article13, management fads are:

  • Simple. Because fads are by their very nature suited for a simple world, they have limited utility in the real one.
  • Prescriptive. Though a fad’s fundamental ideas might be sound, the need to be simple but prescriptive makes their action points easy to misinterpret or inappropriately apply.
  • Falsely encouraging. Fads are better at raising hopes than delivering results.
  • One-size-fits-all. Few management approaches are universally applicable, and attempts to implement a mismatched approach can do more harm than good.
  • Easy to cut-and-paste. Because fad management ideas must be simple and easy to apply, they’re amenable to partial implementation.
  • In tune with the zeitgeist. Fads resonate with the pressing business problems of the day.
  • Novel, not radical. Fads grab attention by their apparent novelty. But their freshness is often superficial, and, as such, fads don’t unduly challenge basic managerial values.
  • Legitimized by gurus and disciples. Many fads gain credibility by the status and prestige of their proponents or followers, rather than through empirical evidence.

In zealously embracing a management fad, the regional NRM bodies perpetuated the inability of the NHT to be able to demonstrate outcomes for its significant investment. They also strayed away from the principal driver underpinning the regional delivery model for NRM, which as stated above, “is to ‘harness the capacity of those closest to the problem on the ground’, building on local knowledge, experience and expertise and enabling flexible and responsive solutions to local NRM challenges.” This principal driver aligns with the approach advocated by Dave Snowden in his Tweets above, and by Snowden and Boone in their aforementioned Harvard Business Review article “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making.”

It can be argued that the leaders of the regional NRM bodies should accept at least some responsibility for over-zealously heading in an undesirable direction. However, these leaders face the constant struggle of trying to make effective decisions and deliver measurable outcomes in the face of complexity. Why wouldn’t they enthusiastically and unquestioningly embrace a solution put forward by a research hub that was supported by the Australian Government and involved five research institutions and two state governments?

Following on from this, it can be more appropriately argued that the Australian Government and the Landscape Logic research institutions and state government agencies bear the primary responsibility for regional NRM bodies heading in an undesirable direction with Bayesian networks. The Commonwealth Environmental Research Facilities program could and should have first funded a comprehensive review of the international literature related to managing in the face of complexity before supporting any research hubs implementing particular solutions. The participating research institutions and state government agencies could and should also have seen such a review as an initial priority.

While the publication of the ODI reports coincided with Landscape Logic’s promotion of Bayesian networks, much of the extensive body of literature reviewed by the ODI was published before this time. This literature includes a 2003 article14 by Cynthia Kurtz and Dave Snowden where they discuss the approaches to managing in a complex context that underpin the tools later described by Snowden and Boone in the aforementioned 2007 Harvard Business Review article “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making.”

There were also precedents for such literature reviews in Australian NRM, for example the comprehensive literature reviews carried out by the National R&D Program on Rehabilitation, Management and Conservation of Remnant Vegetation which informed my preparation of a local government biodiversity strategy15 in 2000.

Beyond the academic literature, there were also Australian examples of the successful application of the approaches advocated by Dave Snowden and the ODI from as early as the beginning of the 1990s. I can unequivocally say this because I was involved in one such initiative established in 1990 – the Ipswich Heritage Program – as I’ve already documented in a RealKM Magazine case study. As I state in the Ipswich Heritage Program case study, inspired by the success of the Ipswich Heritage Program, I went on to apply similar approaches in numerous environmental programs and projects. A number of these are also documented here in RealKM Magazine, for example the Gatton Shire Planning Scheme and the Sustainable Management of the Helidon Hills Project.

All of these programs and projects had an Australian Government funding component, meaning that at their completion a report with outcomes and recommendations was submitted to the Australian Government. I’m also aware of Australian Government funded programs and projects conducted by others that had documented similar conclusions. The Australian Government’s Commonwealth Environmental Research Facilities program could and should have considered all of these outcomes and recommendations as part of a comprehensive literature review. However, to my horror, I would discover later when working on the Land & Water Australia Knowledge for Regional NRM Program that the completion reports were just filed away, and never used as a learning tool. In an appalling failure of lesson learning, most were never read by anyone outside the regional and local organisations that prepared them.

In the absence of adequate literature reviews and effective lesson learning, it’s quite possible that Bayesian networks came to be proposed because they were the personal research interest of some of the participants in the Landscape Logic research hub.

Advancing an even more disturbing fad

The second case study relates to three key and interrelated aspects of Dave Snowden’s third Tweet – defining how people think, engineering organisational culture, and mindset change:

As with the Bayesian networks initiative, a research project carried out from 2005 to 2008 by the Australian Government’s Land & Water Australia (LWA) rural research and development corporation had also sought to address the complexity faced by NRM decision-makers. The project is summarised in the 2008 research report16 New paradigms to find solutions to intractable NRM problems.

At the beginning of the research report, the objectives of the project are stated as being:

  1. To identify the underlying mental models, beliefs, and assumptions of key scientists, policy makers, funders and the public about the dynamics of complex systems.
  1. To understand stakeholder acceptance and resistance to policy options and address the root cause of problems and set forth strategies in a way that can gain acceptance.
  1. To improve our understanding of the complex dynamics that result from interactions between the social, ecological and economics systems operating in agricultural systems in Australia.
  1. To test the limits of the conceptual model through a rigorous quantitative modelling process.
  1. To inform policy based on current understanding of critical feedback processes in complex adaptive systems and resilience building for social-ecological systems.
  1. To develop adaptive institution and policy design principles that can improve natural resource outcomes.
  1. To inform policy on appropriate interventions to increase the resilience of agricultural regions

The research report then goes on to discuss complexity and resilience in NRM, including making reference to how “Internationally the number of papers in the scientific literature related to complex problems and the paradigm of resilience has risen from approximately 50 per year in 2000 to about 250 per year in 2007.” Research questions are then stated, followed by a summary of methods and modifications. The first of these methods is as follows:

Phase 1- Personality Types in Australian NRM

The well-established Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI®) was used to investigate the distribution of personality types in people involved in NRM across Australia. Our sample consisted of 457 people drawn from the institutional framework for decision making on NRM across Australia and was compared with the Australian Data Archive as the base sample. The methods were consistent with The Australian Association of Psychological Type procedures and were conducted under a Murdoch University Ethics approval (Approval Number 2006/008). The results of this investigation have been submitted to the journal ‘Environmental Management’.

Referencing back to Dave Snowden’s third Tweet above, seeking to define personality types in this way has become a popular approach to defining how people think in organisations. However, putting aside the significant criticisms of the MBTI®, something I’ve previously discussed in RealKM Magazine and also acknowledged by the researchers in their Environmental Management journal article17, again nowhere in the vast body of complexity literature reviewed by the ODI is there any mention of defining personality types as a potential tool for managing in complex contexts.

Further, the decision to use personality types appears to be directly linked to the second objective of the LWA research project, which is to “understand stakeholder acceptance and resistance to policy options and address the root cause of problems and set forth strategies in a way that can gain acceptance.” Both the ODI and the literature they reference actually strongly recommend against compliance-seeking top-down approaches such as this. For example, in Taking responsibility for complexity: How implementation can achieve results in the face of complex problems, the ODI’s Harry Jones states18 that:

participatory tools … have overwhelmingly tended to be employed in an ‘instrumental’ manner, as tools to help achieve one’s own objectives … Worse, participation is sometimes ‘derisory’: trust and compliance are ascertained simply to build a perceived institutional legitimacy, which in turn it is hoped will engineer compliance with agency-driven decisions, objectives and goals.

One of the references that Jones uses for this observation is the highly influential paper A Ladder Of Citizen Participation19 written in 1969 by Sherry R. Arnstein. Yes 1969 – half a century ago now. In the paper, Arnstein describes eight rungs on the ladder of citizen participation (Figure 1), ranging from a low level of participation (rung 1) through to a high level (rung 8).

Eight rungs on the ladder of citizen participation
Figure 1. Eight rungs on the ladder of citizen participation (Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0).

The descriptions of the eight rungs are:

  1. MANIPULATION. In the name of citizen participation, people are placed on rubberstamp advisory committees or advisory boards for the express purpose of “educating” them or engineering their support. Instead of genuine citizen participation, the bottom rung of the ladder signifies the distortion of participation into a public relations vehicle by powerholders.
  1. THERAPY. In some respects group therapy, masked as citizen participation, should be on the lowest rung of the ladder because it is both dishonest and arrogant. Its administrators – mental health experts from social workers to psychiatrists – assume that powerlessness is synonymous with mental illness. On this assumption, under a masquerade of involving citizens in planning, the experts subject the citizens to clinical group therapy.
  1. INFORMING. Informing citizens of their rights, responsibilities, and options can be the most important first step toward legitimate citizen participation. However, too frequently the emphasis is placed on a one-way flow of information – from officials to citizens – with no channel provided for feedback and no power for negotiation. Under these conditions, particularly when information is provided at a late stage in planning, people have little opportunity to influence the program designed “for their benefit.”
  1. CONSULTATION. Inviting citizens’ opinions, like informing them, can be a legitimate step toward their full participation. But if consulting them is not combined with other modes of participation, this rung of the ladder is still a sham since it offers no assurance that citizen concerns and ideas will be taken into account … When powerholders restrict the input of citizens’ ideas solely to this level, participation remains just a window-dressing ritual.
  1. PLACATION. It is at this level that citizens begin to have some degree of influence though tokenism is still apparent. An example of placation strategy is to place a few handpicked “worthy” poor on boards of Community Action Agencies or on public bodies like the board of education, police commission, or housing authority. If they are not accountable to a constituency in the community and if the traditional power elite hold the majority of seats, the have-nots can be easily outvoted and outfoxed.
  1. PARTNERSHIP. At this rung of the ladder, power is in fact redistributed through negotiation between citizens and powerholders. They agree to share planning and decision-making responsibilities through such structures as joint policy boards, planning committees and mechanisms for resolving impasses. After the groundrules have been established through some form of give-and-take, they are not subject to unilateral change.
  1. DELEGATED POWER. At this level, the ladder has been scaled to the point where citizens hold the significant cards to assure accountability of the program to them. To resolve differences, powerholders need to start the bargaining process rather than respond to pressure from the other end.
  1. CITIZEN CONTROL. People are simply demanding that degree of power (or control) which guarantees that participants or residents can govern a program or an institution, be in full charge of policy and managerial aspects, and be able to negotiate the conditions under which “outsiders” may change them.

The second objective of the LWA research project, which is to “understand stakeholder acceptance and resistance to policy options and address the root cause of problems and set forth strategies in a way that can gain acceptance,” aligns with the lowest “nonparticipation” rungs of Arnstein’s ladder. As the descriptions for those rungs suggest, this research project objective was manipulative because it sought to educate stakeholders and engineer their support, and dishonest and arrogant because it assumed that the inability of some people to participate required a psychological intervention. Referencing back to Dave Snowden’s third Tweet above, this research project objective can be described in other words as a paternalistic attempt to engineer organisational culture based on seeking to define how people think.

This LWA research project was conducted at the same time as I was working for LWA on the Knowledge for Regional NRM Program so I had both a basic awareness of the research and was also able to observe how NRM organisations responded to its “nonparticipation” approaches. As well as using the MBTI®, the research also applied temperament theory which has identified four temperaments, each of which aligns with a cluster of four of the 16 MBTI® types. As the LWA researchers state in their Environmental Management journal article:

The four temperaments are light years apart in their attitudes and actions. Over the years people have called the four temperaments by many names, here I adopt the names used by Berens … The four temperaments are Stabilizer … Improviser … Theorist … and Catalyst

Some people responded to this analysis positively because their identified temperament aligned with their self-image. However, others felt very uncomfortable with the idea of having their temperament being put into what they described as a labelled box. Some people were very unhappy with their labels, in particular those identified as Stabilizers. This is because, as the researchers write in their Environmental Management journal article, “A Stabilizer temperament ‘culture’ has been described as ‘traditional’ and one that tends to resist change.”

This references back to the remaining key aspect I note in Dave Snowden’s third Tweet above – the notion of mindset change – in this case the desire that people identifed as having a Stabilizer temperament can be encouraged (or pushed) to adopt a different mindset that embraces rather than resists change. The notion of mindset change has been popularised by psychologist Carol S. Dweck in her 2008 book20 Mindset: The new psychology of success where she describes two mindsets. The fixed mindset is the belief that intelligence is predetermined and unchanging. On the other hand, the growth mindset is the belief that intelligence is transformational, and that through effort anything can be learned.

However, as the ODI’s Harry Jones advises21, contestation and argument can be important for informing and improving the foundations of policy and action, so organisations should establish participatory processes through which they build and work with critical voices, rather than avoiding them.

As I’ve stated in another previous article, Arnstein’s ladder of citizen participation has been around long enough for everyone leading NRM programs and projects to not only be well aware of it, but to be actively applying it. As documented by the ODI, other research published since Arnstein’s landmark 1969 paper reinforces Arnstein’s ladder. As I have argued above in regard to Bayesian networks, beyond the academic literature, there are also Australian programs and projects demonstrating the successful application of the approaches advocated by Arnstein from as early as the beginning of the 1990s. In establishing their project, the LWA researchers could and should have better considered the body of academic literature and the outcomes and recommendations of prior NRM programs and projects.

In addition to the examples I have already linked in the Bayesian networks case study section above, another example from my own work demonstrating the application of the concepts reflected in Arnstein’s ladder is the Australian Government funded Crow’s Nest Shire Project Green Nest. Project Green Nest was acclaimed for its innovative strategies and the way in which it engaged the community, receiving two awards including a Commendation Award in the ‘Environment – Natural Resource Management: Partnerships for Biodiversity Conservation’ category in the 2002 National Awards for Local Government. While the Australian Government wasn’t sharing the learnings from program and project completion reports, the LWA researchers could still have accessed information about the project because the Commendation Award states that:

Details of your project will be printed in the publication “Leading Practice in Local Government Guide 2002” so other councils can share and benefit from your expertise and knowledge. In addition, entries will be available on the National Office of Local Government web site.

Further, Project Green Nest included University of Queensland student research22 that built on the participatory approaches work and research of the University of Queensland’s Dr. Ingrid Burkett, which she discusses in a keynote presentation23 to the 2002 Southern Queensland Biodiversity Conference. This was the fourth such knowledge sharing conference that I had convened, and all had included multiple examples of research and case studies in regard to effective participatory approaches.

As with the Bayesian networks case study above, in the absence of adequate consideration of published academic literature and practitioner reports, it’s quite possible that the personality types approach came to be proposed because it was the personal interest of one of the researchers.

Moving forward in time to the present day, has Australia’s NRM sector finally embraced the approaches to managing in the face of complexity advocated by Dave Snowden and the ODI? Sadly, there’s every indication that the situation is actually becoming worse.

A 2016 document from the AdaptNRM program of CSIRO Land and Water illustrates this. The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) is a key Australian Government scientific research agency, and AdaptNRM is a national initiative that aims to support NRM organisations in updating their NRM plans to include climate adaptation planning.

The document24 is titled The Personality Portfolio: Using organisational personality to accelerate climate adaptation in NRM. Rather than carrying out an MBTI®-based assessment of the personalities of people within NRM organisations as was done in the LWA research above, this CSIRO research proposes that each NRM organisation can itself have a personality:

This Portfolio borrows the concept of ‘personality’ to reflect on how natural resource management (NRM) organisations operate. It characterises six potential personality types of NRM organisations and uses them as a tool to reflect on strengths, collaborate differently to face challenges, and get better access to information for NRM groups. The end result should be a faster, more efficient adaptation journey.

Individual personality tests (e.g. Myers-Briggs, DiSC, or The Big Five personality tests) and their associated personality types have been used as a tool to encourage people to reflect on their own strengths and limitations and to consider how to work more effectively with others.

Organisations can be thought of as having personalities just like individual people do. Thus, reflecting on the strengths our organisations possess and the challenges they are likely to face in adaptation based on their personality could help target adaptation efforts to achieve success faster or more efficiently.

This Portfolio borrows the engaging idea of personality types to foster such reflection for natural resource management (NRM) groups and those who collaborate with or deliver information to them. It introduces six personality types for Australia’s regional NRM groups – Generalists, Naturalists, Classicists, Explorers, Rebels and Responders.

Referencing back to Dave Snowden’s third Tweet above, this organisational personality approach again seeks to define how people think, engineer organisational culture, and bring about mindset change. However, not only is this approach not based on complexity science, it’s also not based on personality science. Nowhere in the personality psychology literature does it suggest that organisations can have a “personality” in the same way that individual people do. It would be a gross understatement to say that it’s deeply disturbing to see a premier Australian Government research organisation like CSIRO put forward something as deeply unscientific as this in the context of climate adaptation.

Meanwhile, because of the continued failure of Australian governments and research agencies to adequately ground their NRM approaches in complexity science, important NRM programs and projects continue to fail to deliver their desired outcomes.

One example is the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. The Murray-Darling Basin spans four Australian states and the Australian Capital Territory, and is home to half of Australia’s irrigated agriculture, making it highly significant to the Australian economy. The Murray-Darling Basin Plan is the latest in many years of attempts25 to address the complexity of environmental management in the Murray-Darling Basin, which has been described as a “wicked water problem” 26.

However, when the guide to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was released in 2010, confronting images of people angrily burning the guide were splashed across the media, and ever since, the Basin Plan process has struggled to gain acceptance. There have been allegations of corruption and inaction on water theft, the Darling River has run dry, and two key Basin states have threatened to quit the Plan in response to a highly divisive water recovery proposal. It’s an appalling disaster.

If open participatory processes that allowed for dissent and diversity and the emergence of ways forward had been facilitated, then the outcomes could have been very different. However, both farmers and Indigenous communities felt excluded by the Basin Plan process.

In describing the participatory processes that they experienced, the National Farmers’ Federation states27 that “telling people about the process and seeking their views is not the same thing as engaging communities in its development from the start and truly considering their views.” Echoing this, the New South Wales (NSW) Farmers Association states in a media release that “farmers and regional communities appear to have been effectively shut out of the discussion about the Murray Darling Basin Plan, with potentially devastating results.” Elaborating, a NSW Farmers Association position statement argues that:

… the current planning process is fundamentally flawed. A sustainable outcome for the Basin demands … A collaborative planning process that engages local expertise and the farm sector at valley scale in a process of optimising water allocation

Indigenous people have also felt ignored and marginalised by the Murray-Darling Basin Plan process. For example, an Aboriginal nation is documented28 as having become so frustrated that they chose to leave what they described as an inappropriate and ineffective process rather than “legitimise its decisions through participation.”

Another example is land clearing policy in Queensland. The state of Queensland has had one of the world’s highest land clearing rates, with devastating impacts29 on the natural environment. In May 2003, the then Labor Party Queensland Government introduced a moratorium on all land clearing to stop the panic clearing while policies to control the clearing were developed. Strict land clearing controls were subsequently introduced.

However, the land clearing halt was short lived. While farmers received compensation for having land clearing on their land restricted, their perspectives hadn’t been adequately considered and addressed in the development of the land clearing controls. As a result, opposition against the controls progressively grew, and a 2012 change of Queensland government from the Labor Party to the rural-oriented Liberal National Party saw legislation passed in 2013 that greatly weakened the controls. From 2013, land clearing rates again skyrocketed, with Queensland back in the headlines for again having one of the world’s worst land clearing rates.

The Labor Party attempted to reintroduce strong land clearing controls in 2016, following a further change of Queensland Government from the Liberal National Party to the Labor Party, but was defeated in parliament. The Labor Party then succeeded in introducing new land clearing controls in 2018, but was criticised for still failing to adequately consider the perspectives and needs of rural landholders. This means that any future change of Queensland government to the Liberal National Party is likely to see the controls again weakened, with yet another corresponding dramatic rise in land clearing rates.

Lessons to be considered

From the case study analyses above, the following suggested lessons are put forward for consideration:

  1. The managers and leaders of organisations are at least partly responsible for their organisations embracing management fads rather than the tools and approaches for managing in the face of complexity advocated by Dave Snowden and the Overseas Development Institute (ODI). However, governments and research institutions can actually be the primary drivers and supporters of these management fads.
  1. The reasons why governments and research institutions can become the primary drivers and supporters of management fads include not adequately reviewing and considering published academic literature and practitioner reports, and potentially allowing the personal interests of researchers, rather than the public interest, to drive research agendas.

Header image: Copies of the guide to the Murray-Darling Basin plan being angrily burnt. Source: Gabrielle Dunlevy, AAP (ABC News).


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  3. Yang, X. S. (2019). Introduction to Algorithms for Data Mining and Machine Learning. Academic Press.
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  24. Doerr, V.A.J., Hobday, A.J., Marshall, N.A., Lim-Camacho, L., & Jeanneret, T. (2016). The Personality Portfolio: Using organisational personality to accelerate climate adaptation in NRM. CSIRO Land and Water, Canberra.
  25. Connell, D. (2007). Water politics in the Murray-Darling Basin, Federation Press, Annandale.
  26. Connell, D. & Grafton, R. (2011). Basin Futures, Water reform in the Murray-Darling Basin. ANU E Press, The Australian National University, Canberra.
  27. Kerr, D. (2012). National Farmers’ Federation Submission to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority for the Proposed Basin Plan. April 2012.
  28. Weir, J. (2009). Murray River Country, An ecological dialogue with traditional owners. Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra.
  29. ACF (n.d.). Land Clearing and Landscape Repair in Queensland. Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF).
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Bruce Boyes

Bruce Boyes ( is a knowledge management (KM), environmental management, and education professional with over 30 years of experience in Australia and China. His work has received high-level acclaim and been recognised through a number of significant awards. He is currently a PhD candidate in the Knowledge, Technology and Innovation Group at Wageningen University and Research, and holds a Master of Environmental Management with Distinction. He is also the editor, lead writer, and a director of the award-winning RealKM Magazine (, and teaches in the Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU) Certified High-school Program (CHP).

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