Rethinking monitoring, evaluation and learning in complex systems

June 8, 2022
Two interesting recent posts on Adaptive Management, complexity etc, which the authors have kindly allowed me to repost here. First up is Søren Vester Haldrup, from UNDP’s Strategic Innovation Unit, wrestling with the issue of measurement and learning. Original post here. Tomorrow Tom Aston provides a great overview of where we’ve got to on adaptive management. Two years ago, we launched a

The Project Cycle in Complex Systems – cartoon version

June 7, 2018
Jo Rowlands spotted this gem in a recent Intrac Newsletter. It’s drawn by Bill Crooks, based on an original concept by Nigel Simister.

Complexity v Simplicity: the challenge for Campaigners and Reformers

September 14, 2017
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

Handy NGO Guide to Social Network Analysis

January 26, 2017
Social Network Analysis has been cropping up a bit in my mental in-tray. First there was my Christmas reading – Social Physics, by Alex Pentland. Then came yesterday’s post from some networkers within Oxfam. So here are some additional thoughts, based on a great guide to SNA by the International Rescue Committee. Complexity and Systems Thinking seems to push people into

Why systems thinking changes everything for activists and reformers

November 4, 2016
This week, the Guardian ran a very nicely edited ‘long read’ extract from How Change Happens covering some of the book’s central arguments, under the title Radical Thinking Reveals the Secrets of Making Change Happen. Here it is: Political and economic earthquakes are often sudden and unforeseeable, despite the false pundits who pop up later to claim they predicted them

Can aid agencies help systems fix themselves? The implications of complexity for development cooperation

May 13, 2015
Owen Barder gave a brilliant lecture on complexity and development to my LSE students earlier this year. Afterwards, I asked him to dig deeper into the ‘so whats’ for aid agencies. The result is this elegant essay (a bit long for a blog, but who cares?). I will try and get some responses to his arguments from similarly large brains.

How do you keep 100 students awake on a Friday afternoon? Fast feedback and iterative adaptation seem to work

February 4, 2015
I wrote this post for the LSE’s International Development Department blog There’s a character in a Moliere play who is surprised and delighted to learn that he has been speaking prose all his life without knowing it. I thought of him a couple of weeks into my new role as a part-time Professor in Practice in LSE’s International Development Department, when I

How can complexity/systems thinking help small island states?

May 1, 2014
‘It’s a big year for small islands’ announced the speaker before me, who revelled in the title ‘The Honourable Lord Tu’ivakano, Prime Minister, Kingdom of Tonga’ (right). When my turn came, how should I refer to him? (I’m hopeless at this kind of thing, must come from going to a state school.) His Lordship? Your Honourableness? ‘Yo Tu’ivakano’ (a la

Do fragile states evolve like forests? Insights from complexity thinking

January 7, 2014
Oxfam’s engagement with physics-trained complexity enthusiast Jean Boulton is starting to generate some really interesting ideas. Jean has been helping us think through our work in fragile states – the big challenge for a lot of aid organizations over the next few years. Just before Christmas, she came in to tell us where her thinking has got to on the

How do you measure the difficult stuff (empowerment, resilience) and whether any change is attributable to your role?

December 3, 2013
In one of his grumpier moments, Owen Barder recently branded me as ‘anti-data’, which (if you think about it for a minute) would be a bit weird foranyone working in the development sector. The real issue is of course, what kind of data tell you useful things about different kinds of programme, and how you collect them. If people equate

What kinds of ‘expert advice’ work in a complex world? Some likes and dislikes

November 21, 2013
I’ve been talking to a lot of ‘advisers’ in Oxfam, Save the Children and elsewhere recently about what all this complexity stuff means in practice. Advisers are unsung NGO heroes, repositories of wisdom and experience, working closely with partners and staff on the ground. And those staff typically want to know what they should be doing differently. That’s what experts

What does your project plan most resemble – baking a cake, landing a rocket on the moon, or raising a child?

October 3, 2013
One of the main obstacles to having a decent conversation about the implications of complex systems for how we ‘do’ development (donorship, programming, advocacy, campaigns etc) is the language itself. Complexity geeks may get a kick out of saying ‘it’s all complex/context specific etc etc’, but more normal/practical people tend to find such language offputting and disempowering. Often, they don’t