Complex Adaptive Systems and Managing Social Change

Chris Allan cropped

Complex Adaptive Systems and Managing Social Change

By Chris Allan

I’ve always had a queasy feeling about how to plan programs for social change. We know we’re supposed to analyze the problem, develop a goal, objectives, activities, indicators and resources. It all makes sense from a logical point of view. But, but…How often does social change happen logically? How often have you seen a plan like this really pan out from start to finish? And if you’ve developed a whole logical framework around it, bringing in all the stakeholders to make sure everyone buys into it, it’s really hard to make adjustments as you go. You may see what’s actually happening but it can be hard to bring everyone along with you.

This kind of planning seems to misunderstand how social change really happens. We treat society as if it were a tool, a tinker toy, and we just need to get the steps in the instructions for assembly right and we’ll get the change we want.

But societies are complex adaptive systems, with all that applies.

Maybe you’ve seen the online video about the guy at the outdoor music festival who singlehandedly gets the whole crowd dancing with him. If not, check out the “Leadership Lessons from the Dancing Guy” by Derek Sievers. It’s a lesson in how to build a movement in under three seconds. Watching that video reminds that social change is messy and unpredictable, and so our plans must match that adaptability and flexibility.

The lesson here is that self-organizing groups can do remarkable things. And what they do and how they get together is very hard to predict. And that it rarely depends on a single leader – knowing how to follow is important too.

A friend recently told me about an unexpected outcome during a program promoting potato production and marketing he was visiting in Latin America. Staff of the program were upset because they hadn’t met the outputs listed in the log frame – too few potatoes produced, too few farmers engaged. But further inquiry revealed that farmers had in fact been successful in getting the municipal government to put on a regional potato fair, had begun transporting potatoes to an urban market on the coast, and were even selling to a firm that was processing potatoes into organic chips for the European export market. But the partner hadn’t thought to report on these because they weren’t strictly part of the output metric on local marketing!

OK, that’s a bit obvious, that’s just being enslaved to the log frame, and most people know that the log frame is just a plan to be adapted as you go. But they’re hard to adapt, especially if lots of groups and organizations are involved. And for social change on any decent scale to be sustainable, lots of organizations have to be involved.

So rather than trying to strangle social reality into better and better log frames, let’s take this concept of complex adaptive systems seriously.

I like the analogy of simple, complicated and complex that is often citied from the work of Frances Westley and her colleagues to understand what complexity means.[1]

Simple Complicated Complex
Baking a Cake Sending a Rocket to the Moon Raising a Child

To take other examples, designing a form for tracking staff leave is simple. Organizing an international conference is complicated. Reducing disaster risk from poverty and poor housing is complex. This means that we need to have programs that are complex too, and we need to adapt our planning and management accordingly.

How Do We Do That?

First, we’ve got to distribute decision making throughout the organization, to increase the ability of people to use their creativity and adapt quickly to circumstances. This image puts it starkly:

From this:


To this:


Note that this doesn’t mean all decisions. We need balance. A balance of predictability and oversight with decentralization and freedom. While each organization has to find that balance, generally administrative decisions need predictability and constancy, and program decisions need to adapt with circumstances to try out new approaches. In other words, don’t make people guess how much they should budget for per diem or how much leave they have, but do give them the freedom to engage with partners and communities in new ways to try out new approaches.

One way to help this adaptability happen without driving everyone nuts with constantly changing plans is to manage by values. Put simply, we have had a few fashions in management in the last few decades:

  • Management by instruction – works best for assembling products
  • Management by objectives – better for knowledge workers and others who can have some freedom to figure out how to get a specific job done
  • Management by values – appropriate for networks and loose organizations where styles and objectives may vary, but all are working to the same goals in the same general way.

For working on complex problems, agreement about core values can leave people considerable room to figure out how to get there. What is it that we envision as a sound solution to this problem, and what values are essential to the way we work?

But why work in these loose, hard to manage ways anyway? With complex social problems, it is important to work in networks, and bring in interests and talents from a variety of places.

Why Manage Networks

  • Most social problems are complex
  • Networks and Partnerships are necessary to solve these complex problems
  • Command and control doesn’t work with networked people and projects
  • Command and control doesn’t adapt well to changing circumstances and local initiative
  • Decentralized management allows flexibility and creativity

Working in this kind of hybrid organization – that has a sound administrative base and a flexible program – requires a different kind of leadership. Leaders of these networked organizations need these skills:

  • Influence rather than control
  • Ability to generate shared values
  • Build relationships
  • Comfort with a balance of stability and disorder
  • High level of autonomy
  • High level of responsibility
  • Freedom to innovate from any part of the network

This kind of management requires constant check-ins and communication.

To sum up, managing programs to deal with complex social problems requires

  • An understanding that traditional management methods don’t seem to fit well in networks
  • Self organizing teams can accomplish much independently
  • Leaders manage by values
  • A high level of communication is required to share values and agree on work

People thinking this way are still developing the tools for managing this way of working. The next part of this blog will dig into those a bit deeper. In the meantime, Heather Britt’s paper on Complexity-Aware Monitoring is a great place to start.

[1] Westley, F., Patton, M. Q., & Zimmerman, B. (2006). Getting to maybe: How the world is changed. Toronto: Random House Canada

This entry was posted in Blog. Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>