Systemcraft: an approach to navigating complex change

Editor’s Note

Since writing this blog, Wasafiri has embraced and further developed “Systemcraft” as a framework for tackling tough problems. Click here to access the latest overview and download our Systemcraft Guide. 

Complexity: a 21st Century challenge

Today, in an uncertain, volatile and highly interconnected world, leaders are held responsible for achieving progress amidst an array of complex problems that can feel intractable and beyond their control. Since forming in 2010, Wasafiri’s work has targeted such complex problems with both success and failure. Our experience, from the halls of the African Union to the Ebola clinics of Sierra Leone, is teaching us what works in practice. We are calling our emergent approach Systemcraft, and developing it into a framework through which to help our clients navigate complex change for positive outcomes.

On the international stage, complex problems are best articulated by the Sustainable Development Goals, encompassing varied interlocking issues such as hunger, health, conflict, climate change and inequality. At ground level, they manifest as acutely practical issues at every level of organisations and communities:

  • Prices rise for staple crops in Tanzania, and a policy-maker must decide whether to permit rice imports and risk undermining new investments in domestic production.
  • A young diplomat is told that it is in America’s interest to reduce the attractiveness of Jihadist ideology to disaffected young men in communities across the Horn of Africa.
  • A Palm Oil company commits to zero deforestation, but its new roads to a plantation on degraded land also enable access for poor Liberians to undertake slash and burn farming in virgin forest.
  • A UK doctor is charged with meeting rising demands from an aging rural population, whilst the health budget is flat, and 30% of medical posts are unfilled.
  • Oil is discovered in the arid lands of Kenya, so that nomadic pastoralists and North Sea engineers find their fortunes intertwined and must find the means to work together.

Across such diverse challenges, we increasingly find common characteristics that help explain why the problem feels intractable. Firstly, the issue has no root cause. Rather it is the outcome of a web of different dynamics and human interactions; it is systemic and it is complex. Secondly, the issue is constantly evolving and adapts under new influences; it is emergent. Thirdly, no single institution has clear responsibility, and no single actor can entirely perceive how the system is operating. Fourthly, there is no immediate identifiable solution, only interventions that might make the problem better. Finally, and most importantly, the problem appears intractable in relation to the quality of collaboration between the system’s stakeholders; there is a lack of adaptive capacity.

Under enormous pressure to act, and with the best of intentions, people often respond to such complex problems with measures that fail to deliver change, and can even acerbate the problem. Two caricatures are helpful to consider:

  • The silver bullet: Bright, articulate people present compelling arguments for single, ambitious interventions that will provide rapid results. Consistently, the system finds ways to resist this change and problems worsen. Rice tariffs in Nigeria leads to massive smuggling through Benin. Weekend shifts for UK doctors causes an exodus of professionals to other countries. An oil company compensates generously after their truck ran over a goat, thereby inspiring herders to usher their flocks into the roads.
  • The perfect plan: Meticulous desk-based planning by development experts presents neat causal chains from interventions to impact, aiming to ensure value for money and management for results. Implementers are accountable to delivering the plan on time and on budget. Meanwhile the issue and context is evolving and is more complex and resistant than the plan supposed. Unintended consequences unfold. Free distribution of improved seeds undermines local markets and production. Al Shabab establishes a protection racket to sequester money from local institutions benefitting from aid money.

So, in a 21st Century world of ever growing connectedness, uncertainty, and volatility, how are people successfully navigating complex change to bring about positive results?

To answer this question, the Wasafiri team has iterated “Systemcraft”. This framework draws from established and new theoretical traditions, such as complexity theory, systems thinking, participatory action research, creating shared value, multi-stakeholder partnership, and critical theory. More importantly it is an applied and evolving framework grounded in our day-to-day practice navigating complex change in diverse contexts.

Systemcraft is founded on the premise that complex problems exist where stakeholders lack sufficient agency to collectively know and reshape the system in which they operate. To navigate complex change, Systemcraft asks protagonists to consider three aspects of system change and how each can reinforce the others: 1) Adaptive capacity; 2) Knowing the system, and: 3) Reshaping the system.

Adaptive Capacity

Investing in “adaptive capacity” is the foundation for effectively navigating complex change. This means investing in the factors that enable people to collectively know and reshape the system on an ongoing basis.

Compare the unfolding of the Ebola crisis in Nigeria and Sierra Leone. In Nigeria, the information systems, organisational networks and flexible resources, rapidly identified and responded to an outbreak so only nine deaths occurred. Meanwhile in smaller Sierra Leone, this adaptive capacity was lacking, leading to 4000 deaths and the degradation of what healthcare capacity existed. Wasafiri directly experienced how hard it was to establish adequate adaptive capacity once the outbreak was raging.

In a different context, following the 2008 food crisis, African governments reprioritised the long-ignored agricultural sector, but there was no established precedent for how governments, donors, farmer organisations, NGOs and agribusinesses should work together. Wasafiri’s work on CAADP, and subsequently Grow Africa, has helped establish new cross-sector networks and platforms that are now enabling partners to collaborate around the phenomenal opportunities presented by inclusive agricultural growth.

Across varied contexts, Wasafiri has identified common characteristics of systems with high “adaptive capacity”. Before launching to action on a complex problem, leaders can usefully take stock of any gaps in adaptive capacity and ask how to resolve these as the foundation for system change.

  • Shared intent: How clear are protagonists on what they hope to achieve together? Do the following exist?
    • Strong but evolving consensus on problem statement
    • Agreed target or targets owned by majority of stakeholder groups
    • Strategy articulates shared view of ambitions, roles, processes and interventions; whilst enabling agility.
    • Internal agendas subsidiary to shared agenda
  • Stakeholder architecture: How are protagonists convening to coordinate, learn and resolve conflicts as they work on system change? Do the following exist?
    • Each stakeholder group has platform for dialogue and decision-making
    • Multi-stakeholder platforms enable joint dialogue and decision-making
    • Checks and balances mitigate power differences.
    • Senior leadership engaged and communicating across stakeholder groups
    • Trusted coordination body convenes and facilitates across stakeholder groups
  • Information flows: Do protagonists have the data they need to drive change within an evolving system? Do the following exist?
    • Common language for stakeholder groups to discuss the system
    • Stakeholders actively share perspectives to establish a more complete understanding of the system
    • Data on the system is produced, owned and accessed by the stakeholders that need to adapt.
    • Rapid feedback loops allow stakeholders to adapt to changes in the system.

Knowing the system

There is an Indian parable about six blind men, who each touch a different part of an elephant and declare it something different – a snake, a spear, a tree trunk, a rope. Complex systems are similar, except they are like an elephant that is actively evolving in to a new creature.

Ask a young African-American why the 2016 riots in Charlotte USA occurred, and they may explain it was due to a racist and oppressive police force. Ask a police officer and they may say it was a lack of compliance from community members. Such divergent perspectives are common place when facing complex problems, and make it tough to design and coordinate interventions.

If stakeholders can acknowledge they hold partial and positioned views, and they can accept collaboration might lead to progress at a larger scale or in a deeper manner, then the work to better know the system can become a collective and mutually reinforcing endeavour. Together, stakeholders can build a more complete understanding of the system they seek to change:

  • What are the elements in the system – human and physical?
  • How interactions occur between these elements?
  • What flows occur between them – resources, knowledge, ideas?
  • What are the outputs of the system? Who benefits and who is constrained by these?
  • How is power distributed and how is this maintained?

As stakeholders build a more complete picture, they deepen an awareness that their fortunes are bound up together, and they become more targeted, committed and coordinated in their interventions.

One particularly hard aspect of this work is to meaningfully activate the insights and ownership of less powerful stakeholders. Yet without this effort, leaders can easily make decisions based on poor assumptions; and communities resist changes that they do not own or understand. Positive examples do exist. Ecom, a major cocoa trader, recently undertook a participatory, anthropological study of the financial lifecycle of the smallholders they worked with. Through this deep listening exercise, they identified that cultural pressure for expensive funerals caused damaging financial shocks to the farmers. Ecom have since worked with the community to establish funeral insurance.

Wasafiri’s work increasingly involves helping stakeholders better know the messy, shifting landscape that they inhabit together. Whether it is understanding the drivers of violent extremism on Pemba Island, Tanzania, or how policy makers and grain traders are likely to act during a regional food crisis in West Africa, this is a necessary foundation for effectively navigating complex change.

Reshaping the system

Collective work to know a system will partially reveal the dynamics and incentives that sustain it. These insights offer a foundation for designing interventions that may reshape the system and achieve a tipping point for sustained change.

Systems may generate undesirable outputs such as climate change or violent extremism, but only because the underlying dynamics offer tangible benefits to individuals or communities – cheap energy from fossil fuels, or Al Shabaab resolving grievances more effectively than the government. Hence interventions are likely to only partially succeed, and will often have unintended consequences as the system resists change. For example, in asking UK doctors to work more weekends with no additional pay, the Minister has triggered an exodus of trained professionals to other countries, thereby exacerbating NHS shortages

With this awareness, there are several considerations that make interventions more likely to intentionally reshape a system:

  • Ownership: Have a core group of protagonists in the system committed to the desired outcomes and the interventions? Will they all benefit tangibly from the changes? Are there antagonists who will lose out and may resist the change?
  • Agility: Are there feedback loops that allow for rapid review and iteration, especially at early stages?
  • Coordination: Are there multiple interventions coordinated at different leverage points in the system? Together, will their impact be greater than the sum of the parts?
  • Scale: Do pilots have the scope for scaling up to reach a system-wide tipping point?
  • Resourcing: Does the funding model promote agility, sustainability and scale-up?

Wasafiri provides strategic support to clients making interventions that will positively reshape a system. This may be a donor designing a programme that is adaptive to emerging risks, opportunities, and learning. Or it may be a corporate client seeking dynamic management of external risks and opportunities, as they make new investments that impact upon communities or the environment.

Systemcraft: Bringing it all together

The three aspects of Systemcraft – of adaptive capacity, knowing the system, and reshaping the system – must be considered together. Investments in adaptive capacity (common intent, stakeholder architecture and information flows) are only of value if they galvanise better insights and interventions in the system.

Correspondingly, collaborative efforts to know and reshape the system are what bolster adaptive capacity because stakeholders experience the value of navigating a complex and evolving context together. Without collaboration, this work can undermine adaptive capacity, with stakeholders resisting research that feels extractive and interventions that feel imposed.

Wasafiri’s clients normally ask us to support them in one aspect – building adaptive capacity, knowing the system, or designing interventions. Systemcraft demands that we harness this immediate need to strengthen all aspects. Our research on the drivers of violent extremism, can help those communities identify their own interventions, and foster new platforms for collaboration. Our work to convene government, companies, farmers and donors around agricultural growth, must go beyond talk to trigger active, ambitious, targeted partnerships that invest in the sector.

The work of navigating complex change is intensely human, and reshaping systems is more like gardening than it is engineering. That’s why we call it a craft. Wasafiri’s consultants and clients form a community of professionals intensely curious about honing our practice together.

If you are a leader navigating a complex problem, then please get in touch to explore how we can work with you.