Complexity v Simplicity: the challenge for Campaigners and Reformers

September 14, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

Had a few thought-provoking conversations on this last week. I increasingly see most problems (social, political, economic) as complex, i.e. arising from multiple causes in interconnected systems, often highly dependent on the specific context and history of any given place/population. My campaigner friends generally hate such talk, because their gut feeling is that it makes taking action to change the world much more difficult. We often end up arguing about Make Poverty History, which from a campaigners’ point of view can be seen as a great success in terms of public mobilization and rich government commitments to aid and debt relief, but which I hated because of its implicit (and wrong) message that poverty could be ended simply by the actions of outsiders on aid, debt and trade.

So when (and what) is it OK to simplify, and what are the costs and benefits of doing so?

When I arrived at Oxfam, I was given its recipe for the perfect campaign: PSV  – a clear problem, solution and a villain (heroes are optional). For example, the campaign for Access to HIV medicines in the early 2000s had problem = patent rules restricting access; solution = clarify international law to allow governments to override the rules; villain = Big Pharma helpfully taking the South African government to court to stop it over-riding patent rules during the early years of the HIV pandemic. Although battles continue, the campaign helped bring about major changes in policy and practice on access to medicines.

But when you think in terms of systems, all three PSV elements need to be heavily qualified. Problems are usually multiple, interconnected and not all obvious. Solutions vary according to time and place. Villains are seldom monolithically villainous and may also turn out to be potential problem solvers/heroes. And you are likely to be at least partially wrong in your identification of all 3 and to have to change your views as you learn more. Ouch.

What to do? There is good and bad simplification. Good simplification doesn’t overclaim: A clear problem statement can still acknowledge complexity but say ‘this needs to be fixed’. A proffered solution should emphasize that this is not a magic bullet but explain why this solution, among others, is worth a try. On close inspection a villain is likely to be itself a complex system – look inside a company or a government and you are likely to find some allies that can work with you to find a solution.

More broadly, working for change in complex systems requires a change in approach at lots of levels, starting with leadership. I’m currently reading a fascinating new book (review to follow) on China’s development success, which identifies the genius of the Chinese leadership since 1978 as partly about accepting the limitations that complexity places on leadership. It argues that after 1978 they moved from Mao’s disastrous attempts at Command and Control to a fuzzier (‘directed improvisation’) attempt to influence the decisions and behaviours of China’s 50 million (!) public servants. Leaders set the boundaries of the broad environment, but then it’s up to local officials to improvise and find new solutions (often to the surprise of the party bosses in Beijing).

Thinking about complexity has also brought me round to an argument I used to hate. If problems/solutions are complex and context-specific, outsiders might be better advised to argue about process – who needs to be involved and supported (eg civil society, women) in finding the solutions, rather than claiming to have the solutions themselves.

When I looked at how aid agencies design their theories of change for working in messy places like fragile and conflict affected states, I found an interesting bifurcation between, on the one hand, trying to engage with complexity at multiple different sites and levels (a bit like acupuncture) and arguing that this is all too difficult for outsiders. They should instead stick to some broad ‘enabling environment’ issues, usually around access to information, and leave the rest to local actors.

The Chinese Leadership also have some lessons to offer in terms of how to talk to the public/activists about all this. Don’t gleefully say ‘hey, it’s all really complex and so you have to be really smart like me’ (an unfortunate trait of a lot of systems thinkers I have run into). Do communicate through analogy (as in the memorable Chinese version of adaptive management: ‘crossing the river by feeling the stones’).

I’ve found analogies by far the best way to talk about complexity and systems thinking, as you can plug into people’s lived experience of complexity, and highlight the absurdity of linear approaches: Would you design an 18 year logframe for your newborn baby, setting out your parental activities, outputs and outcomes in advance? Hope not. Ditto cycling/driving across town – a plan of intended velocity and direction for the entire trip would lead to an early grave; instead it’s all about fast feedback and adaptation – learning by cycling. You get the picture (and so does everyone else).

Conclusion? It is possible (and preferable) to keep complexity in mind, while tapping into the virtues of simplicity. Aims/direction of travel/principles need to be simple and memorable; problems to be fixed and process should be kept simple. But beware simplistic solutions and caricature villains – that’s when simplicity can make changes harder to achieve.