We are experimenting with different approaches to systems transformation — here are five insights

By Søren Vester Haldrup

At UNDP Innovation we are on a journey to shift our approach to innovation to help tackle complex development challenges. In short, we are moving away from single point solutions, and instead we are trying to figure out how to develop interventions that are more coherent with the nature of complex systemic challenges. On this blog, I’m sharing (in “real time”) my reflections, insights and ramblings emerging from this exciting and immensely difficult journey.

Over the past 10 months we have been supporting a range of UNDP Country Offices in their efforts to better understand and tackle complex systems challenges. These efforts — which we call Deep Demonstrations — range from supporting regional development in Colombia and transforming the tourism sector in the Dominican Republic to improving trust in government and society in Tunisia (for a full overview see visual below and here).

Overview of our Deep Demonstrations

In all these Demonstrations we are painfully aware that we are in no position (nor should we try) to transform systems singlehandedly. However, we can play a role. Geoff Mulgan, for instance, describes how useful it can be to have someone that helps stakeholders in a system gain a shared understanding that system: For any everyday system we should want there to be such shared representations in forms that can be interrogated and used: a representational twin or mirror of the world we live in.

We also know that we are far from the only ones working in this space. Colleagues in UNDPs SDG Integration team are doing fascinating work with the MIT Presencing Institute. Many others are on a similar journey and are sharing their learning along the way. For instance, the Omidyar Group has published a great workbook for people working on complex problems. Charlie Leadbeater and Jannie Winhall’s Green Paper on System Innovation provides a very useful set of frameworks looking at the role of purpose, power, relationships, and resources in unlocking systems change. The Stanford Social Innovation Review has published a series of useful papers (such as this) and philanthropic outfits such as Chandler Foundation and Co-Impact are doing great work (another good example is Mary Stevens’ piece on how to facilitate radical change to meet the climate and nature crises). We are engaging and comparing notes with such other organizations as part of our learning journey. For instance, we have recently done deep dives with Viable Cities and the Donut Economics Action Lab and have had fascinating seminars with the Transformative Innovation Policy Consortium (TIPC), the MacArthur Foundation, Nilekani Philanthropies and the UK Lottery Community Fund.

In these Demonstrations as well as in other initiatives, we are experimenting with different approaches (or methodologies) for understanding and transforming complex systems. For instance, we have been working with Chora Foundation, Snowcone & Haystack, the Agirre Lehendakaria Center, and Deloitte. We are experimenting with different approaches simultaneously because we know that there is not a magic bullet (a single approach) for doing this type of work. Rather, we must be able to learn about and consciously pick and choose elements from a broad toolkit. Trying different things at the same time will allow us to accelerate the process whereby we learn about systems approaches. We hope this can help bring about a shift in mindsets in the UNDP (enabling the organization to better work with uncertainty and complexity). As such, the process becomes an experimental area for the UNDPs next strategic plan.

Within the constraints imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, this has generated a wealth of learning, not only within each of the Demonstrations, but also across as we learn about what different approaches offer, how they are useful and when. Below, I’m sharing a few insights about what we’ve learned to date.

Similar steps, but different content

Here’s an example of how we’ve been mapping and comparing different systems approaches

The approaches we have been experimenting with in our systems work are all different, but if we zoom out, they tend to follow similar steps. Inspired by our colleagues in UNDP’s Europe and Central Asia bureau, we call these: sense, reframe, position, and transform.

Sense entails framing the problem with a systems lens — articulating a north star — and beginning to see (learn about) the system. Reframe, builds on the sensing, and involves revisiting and (you guessed it) reframing our articulation of the problem (or system) of interest. Position, entails developing a course of action — often through a portfolio of interventions that support and learn from each other. Transform, is about implementing the portfolio and dynamically managing it through continuous learning and adaptation.

The theoretical backdrop — top down or bottom up?

If you do a quick literature search you will find that there are many ways of approaching systems and complexity. The approaches we have been experimenting with hail from different theoretical and practice backgrounds, though they also overlap. Some of them come from a design or social innovation background while others are more heavily rooted in complexity and systems theory as a vehicle to enable strategic decision making in complex environments.

These differences shape the type of language that the approaches use and their assumptions about how we learn about systems. This sounds a bit abstract, so let me try to give an example: while one approach may start the analysis of a system in the abstract and based on this develop a portfolio of interventions that allow us to progressively learn about how the system works. A different set of approaches, start out in the ‘real world’, speaking to people that live in the system and then using this learning to build a picture of the system and a course of action.

Who holds the intent? Who articulates the problem?

Approaches based on system thinking differ depending on who they are designed for. Some approaches are designed to help one actor (such as a company or ministry) develop the capability to deal with and make decisions in an uncertain and complex environment. When the actor engages with other stakeholders it is then primarily for the purposes of learning things that allow the actor to understand and navigate the context in ways that align with their own intent.

However, other systems approaches are aimed not to help one actor navigate complexity, but to enable a wider ecosystem of stakeholders jointly tackle a complex challenge. This can happen through various types of co-creation workshops, strategic design processes or other efforts focused on movement building around learning, a common vision and plan of action.

Both types of approaches can be useful, but they are useful in different ways and for different purposes. They also face different challenges in a coronavirus context where lockdowns and quarantines make more externally facing work difficult. It is therefore important to clarify for ourselves what we are trying to do and indeed who “we” are before we decide what approach might be the most useful.

Learning about and seeing the system

All the systems approaches we have experimented with use desk research, interviews and real-world observations as ways to learn about what a system looks like, how it works and where there might be levers for change. Some approaches, however, have a much stronger emphasis on extensively and systematically ‘listening’ to the system (c.f. the “bottom up” point above) through methods such as deep listening. The coronavirus pandemic has presented challenges in this connection as the opportunities for real-world observations and deep stakeholder engagement have been limited.

Another common denominator across approaches has been their emphasis on collectively making sense of the information that is collected. We have found this practice very useful as it helps us better process, enrich and internalize information about a system and to get to a common understanding of what is going on within it.

However, an important lesson has been that activities such as interviews and desk research can only help us learn about the system to a certain extent. Systems are dynamic (they are ever-changing) and at some point, we have to begin to engage in the system — to interact with it — before we can really learn about how it works, where there are levers for change, and how we fit into it all. I discuss this in more detail below.

Over the past year we have become increasingly aware that we need a much stronger focus (and better tools) for understanding the power-political underpinnings of systems and the opportunities and constraints that these present. Moving forward, this is an area we want to delve deeper into (so get in touch if you have ideas for collaboration!). I have written more about the political nature of system transformation here.

Interacting with the system

The approaches we have used over the past year all seek to engage with systems through portfolios of interventions. Often, this is based on the notion that systems challenges cannot be tackled incrementally through traditional stand-alone projects that only address one aspect of the system in isolation. Rather, we have to try to effect change through constellations of interventions that learn from each other, strategically target different aspects of the challenge, and adapt over time. Working in this way puts a premium on learning and adaptation (we sometimes refer to this as dynamic portfolio management) and requires us to extend our time horizons and levels of ambition as change in complex systems doesn’t happen overnight.

Yet, there are different ways (or principles) for designing portfolios. Some approaches, for instance, have a focus on co-creation with a broad range of stakeholders during portfolio design and implementation, while others are aimed at supporting one organization through the process. In the latter case, engagement with external stakeholders tend to be a bit more focused on validation and endorsement of a portfolio strategy, than the co-creation of one.

What’s next?

Our current cohort of Deep Demonstrations are moving from portfolio design to implementation, and this presents a chance to distill a much more granular set of insights about the uses, benefits and difficulties presented by different approaches to systems change. At the same time, we are planning to launch a second generation of Deep Demonstrations building on what we have learned to date. In this process, we are grappling with many questions. For instance:

  • how do we address the need to demonstrate short-term results while keeping our eyes on long-term structural transformation?
  • How do we monitor and evaluate this type of work and sustain long-term commitment among colleagues and partners when systems work is often seen as theoretical, slow moving and without immediate tangible results?
  • Is our current language (such as the above) useful for describing what we are doing (or does it sound to others like unintelligible jargon)?
  • Are we missing the bigger picture by focusing (too much) on methods rather than starting with the underlying mindsets and ways of working that we seek to change?

If you are asking yourself these types of questions, then we’d love to hear from you.

We are pioneering new ways of doing development that build countries’ capacity to deliver change at scale.

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