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

November 21, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

I’ve been talking to a lot of ‘advisers’ in Oxfam, Save the Children and elsewhere recently about what all thisexpertscomplexity 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 are for, right?

But if you’re an adviser who has been mugging up on the implications of complexity (see recent posts), this is tricky. How to stop your advice about a systems approach, with its critique of cookie-cutter approaches based on box ticking, best practice, blueprints etc becoming just the latest cookie? ‘Have you done your system/context analysis? Good, now tick the box and move on to stage 2.’

By a very appropriate process of trial and error, here’s where I have got to:


Asking the right questions: I think you can safely be fairly prescriptive on this. Ask questions about who holds power, who allies with whom, what could be contextual shifts or windows of opportunity that might unblock change. I use a set of guidance questions for analysing change processes that seems to work pretty well. But don’t suggest answers – they have to emerge from the local situation.

Process: Guidance on how to go about designing, evaluating and adapting a change strategy can be useful, e.g. making sure we talk to the people we normally leave out (like faith based organizations, or ex-NGO colleagues with huge accumulated knowledge, who hardly ever get asked in to brief newcomers). But you need to leave doors open to innovation – processes will vary according to context, as will who to talk to.

Case Studies: NGO people prefer stories to formulae, and case studies can liberate the imagination and suggest new approaches.

Signposting, linking and brokering: a lot of the time you are not actually an expert (it’s OK to admit it!), but you know someone who is, or who has been through a similar experience. In practice a lot of advisory work is about linking, rather than directly advising.


Checklists and frameworks: I’m much more dubious about prescribing the content – what a good theory of change looks like, how to strengthen a value chain or empower women etc. OK, this has the advantage of scale and efficiency (tailoring everything to local contexts is very labour intensive), but it is also likely to lead to plans that are either wrong or have big gaps in them

Typologies: I’ve seen the error of my ways on this one. There’s something very exciting about trying to come up with typologies (of types of state, or civil society operating environment, or education systems, or country categories). But as soon as you put them on paper and present them to other people who weren’t involved in drawing them up, creative thought goes out the window as people spend their whole time either trying to decide which box their context fits in, or arguing with the boxes. Hopeless. A compromise is to use typologies in general discussions to expand our general sense of the range of possibilities, but not try and categorize specific pieces of work.


It's perfectly simple.....
It’s perfectly simple…..

Diagrams: I may just be graphically challenged, but I am deeply sceptical of those ornate theory of change diagrams that aid types love to produce. The exercise of devising them in the first place can really stimulate the mental juices about how the system functions, what bits are connected and how etc. But then its probably best to shred it, because when someone new comes in and stares in incomprehension at your ‘change diagram’, their brains will go dead.

But Jo Rowlands, a governance adviser colleague and all-round power and change guru, reckons there is something deeper we need to think about – what kind of people do we need to be to do this kind of work?

‘Seems to me that the most useful thing, in the longer term, is whatever it is that gets this new way of thinking embedded into people’s ways of seeing, thinking and doing. Till that happens, people see it as too much, one more thing in addition to all the rest, or the proverbial straw (that breaks the camel’s back), or too difficult, or whatever the block is.

So the important question is how do we help people make that shift so that it becomes second nature? We probably need to be more concerned with the human beings doing both the programme design and delivery, and how they get the chance to become comfortable with it all – so there’s a serious process/people development need attached that NGOs probably need to take on. Plus, of course, masters courses etc.’

So the good news (if you’re an adviser) is that advisory work is still needed, but it may need to be done very differently in complex systems. Over to the advisory community…..

November 21, 2013
Duncan Green