Translating Complexity into Manageable Action

October 11, 2011

We live in an increasingly complex world, but to implement effective solutions, especially on any type of large scale, we need to have relatively simple approaches that a wide range of people can follow.  So much of what we do as practitioners is to translate complex ideas and solutions into simple (without being condescending or simplistic) approaches that others can follow.  I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the gap that all too often exists between those who have time to think about complexity and those that don’t but need to manage it.

Let’s say that as a busy practitioner I actually have time to read an article or book or hear a presentation that presents some in-depth ideas that provoke my thinking. After I’ve read the book or heard the presentation, I may spend some time on and off over the coming weeks thinking about how it might practically apply to my work.  I may bounce ideas off a colleague or two to better articulate my own thinking.  If I am lucky, I may have the opportunity to pursue these ideas with others in my organization in a more structured way. Perhaps we will even develop a pilot project to test out some of these ideas, eventually finding an approach that will fit the organization and help it address the global challenges it aims to resolve.

This can be a relatively long and involved process that takes time and commitment.  And it is often harder than it needs to be as we often do this kind of transitional thinking in short, ‘stolen’ bursts of time, or as individuals in isolation.  What are some of the approaches that can help guide us to better integrate complexity resources in to our day to day challenges and decision-making? Here are some ideas:

1. Encourage your organization to be a learning organization:  There is a lot of useful thinking ‘out there’ that can be extremely helpful to us as practitioners when our organizations value and allow time for reflection.  For example, Donald Schon in “Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action”  talks about “Reflection-in-action”,  an improvisational decision-making approach that professionals can bring to their everyday practices, as they operate under conditions of complexity, uncertainty, uniqueness, and value conflict.   David Snowden has a Cynefin Framework, a similar approach that looks at how we Sense-Analyze-Respond. We take in new data (sense), then we can consider its implications (analyze), and try a new approach or pilot (respond).  Ian Thorpe on his excellent blog, KM (Knowledge management) on a Dollar a Day reflects periodically on what it means to be a learning organization, including this post “Too Much Learning by Doing?”

2. Look for general approaches:  Owen Barder of the Center for Global Development cautions against breaking complex steps into ‘how-to’s that are prescriptive and can be too simplistic.  He suggests that “If we are going to draw lessons, they should not be on how to get things done, but on what kinds of behavior or approach are needed.”  He suggests three of these: a)  Do things which encourage diversity and innovation;b)  Design ways to ‘fail safely’so that you can learn; c)  Have effective feedback loops – find ways to ensure that what you have learned feeds back quickly into your next decision.”

General approaches or core values can help maintain consistency among a large number of stakeholders who may be implementing a program while allowing for necessary local variation and the improvisation that Donald Schon and others describe.

The staffer of an international NGO involved in international development work (who blogs anonymously) moves in a similar direction in a blog post last year using Dave Snowden’s Cynefin Framwork: “Embracing the Chaotic: Cynefin and Humanitarian Response”. He outlines the following approaches: a) Trust. Organizations need to have trust in their personnel, and have confidence that given the responsibility, they will make good decisions in the heat of the moment; b) Processes (and people) need to be motivated not by procedure but by principle; and c) Systems themselves need to become quick, adaptable and light.

3.  Meet people where they are at:  This is one way that practitioners who are able to make time to reflect can help others they work with to translate complexity to manageable action. Deidre Schmidt, former Executive Director of the Affordable Housing Institute describes having discussions with different staff members based on their own learning styles – are they big picture or detail people?  Can graphs and pictures help?  She also notes the importance of the ‘translator’ role when groups have a range of different expertise.  For example, not everyone necessarily needs to understand the details of technical issues as long as they have confidence in other group members to handle them.

4. Create informal learning communities in or outside of our organizations:  If you do not yet work in an organization that values the time it takes for learning, you can seek out those who do share your need to allocate time periodically for reflection that translates to actionable steps and create informal learning communities.  These peers can help us to carve out time for learning and reflection.  We can share and brainstorm our ideas together and serve as each other’s reminders to make this time on a regular basis.

Together as a community that is focused on providing tools to those who are engaging in significant social change, we need to work on ways to break down silos, and the lingo that often prevents information from being shared between different sectors.  How we can create more opportunities for collective learning and sharing across silos, especially between academics and practitioners? Encourage more organizations to allocate time to be ‘learning organizations’?

This is a much bigger (and ‘complex’) topic than can be addressed in one blog post.  I hope that this is a helpful contribution to what will be an on-going and broad based conversation.

Additional reading