Beliefs that keep us from embracing complexity

Anna Martin
Good Thinking
Published in
5 min readMar 11, 2021


We wish it were different

As I consider the resistance to complexity which I see throughout international development, I have to ask, “Why?” There has been a conversation about complexity in this space for close to 20 years now. There have been conferences, white papers, research, working groups, etc. And yet so many of our fundamental systems and operating processes do not support dancing with complexity — in fact they actively get in the way. Why ignore something that can get us to greater effectiveness and a better collective humanity?

Answering this led me to brainstorm the common objections, immovable policies, client requests, contractual expectations, and pervasively taught ideas from Monitoring and Evaluation that run contrary to the reality described by complexity theory. For each example I could generate I tried to get at the underlying belief, what we feel to be true — the narrative we fall in line behind.

If we are going to shift practices and processes within international development to dance with (not manage!) complexity, then these core beliefs about what is true, expectations of how the world works, and hopes for how to make change will need to flex and grow. I hope by surfacing them and beginning to see them together, we can then choose to start to shift them.

An incomplete list of beliefs, expectations and wishes that keep us from dancing with complexity

  1. There exists a “best practice” which can be implemented in many different times and places and reap results.

Complexity theory tells us that context, time, and relationships all make each implementation and intervention unique. What is best in one instance is not necessarily best in another. — there is a lot of learning and applicability to glean and bring forward, but “best” practice is a misnomer.

2. Social and behavior change can be accomplished in a linear, straightforward fashion. Just follow the cause and effect.

Any field staff will assure you this has never been their actual experience. It’s just easier to document in excel. ;)

3. You can single out a specific issue to work on and only touch that issue.

Professionals develop areas of deep sectoral and topical expertise, which is natural and appropriate and useful. However, it lulls us into working in a siloed way or with other like-minded experts in ways that don’t align with how a specific issue or topic is situated in the real world.

4. Quantitative data, randomized-control trials, and traditional scientific research studies yield more legitimate and trustworthy results.

Legitimate and trustworthy results of an evaluation are the product of matching the right methods to the right questions to the right topic to the right context. In some instances RCT is the best choice for high quality results. In some instances it is a misapplication of methods and will yield poor quality results.

5. You can plan for three-to-five years at a time accurately.

The rate of change and unpredictability are increasing, particularly in socio-political settings. At the NGO and community levels long-term strategic planning is increasingly seen as not useful. One year estimates with quarterly check-ins are trending to meet the need for relevant planning.

6. You can’t be accountable or responsible if you deviate from what is planned.

Accountability is a function of taking responsibility and of accounting for one’s action. Both of these can be accomplished separate from an original or fixed plan. There are many formats and relationships that make this possible.

7. Experts and people with positional power are capable of making [good?] decisions for those less educated and less powerful.

Expertise can be gained many different ways, of which formal education is one. Paternalism is unbecoming and not nearly so effective or sustainable in results. Nothing for us without us.

8. There is only one way to get to a desired goal or impact. Our job is to seek and find the one way.

This is a very Western assumption that our own experiences tell us to be false. We desire its simplicity.

9. A goal and vision must be fully defined in order to move towards it or create meaningful change.

We would never act if this was the case. A recognition and assessment of the current situation as change worthy and changeable is all that is needed for action.

10. Adaptation and organic and local changes threaten the ability for something to scale or be learned from.

Just the opposite is the case. Adjusting and adapting a supposed “best practice” is what will keep it behaving as the “best practice” when scaled to a new implementation. Using complexity-aware monitoring and evaluation processes can keep you on track and dancing with complexity. Applying learning from one complex system to another complex system is likely to be more process-oriented than subject oriented.

11. Sharing power will lead to less accountability.

It will actually deeply embed accountability throughout a system, making it communal. At times this may feel less accountable to you individually or your specific role, as you are only one part of an emerging collective understanding and undertaking.

12. Fast, urgent or immediate change is better than inclusive change.

Pushing change at a rate faster than a system can absorb and incorporate it is rarely (never?) sustainable. It can achieve short-term impact, but behaves externally or as extra to a system instead of embedding or transforming a system.

13. Data that isn’t a representative sample, generalizable, or formally collected can’t be trusted. Certainly not to make decisions.

We make decisions all day every day based on data and information we know or have gathered in informal ways. We have good reason to do so. Not using this kind of information is wasteful. It can be done in ways that are intentional and explicit so as to minimize bias and other decision-making errors; just as you want to do with all decisions.

14. Unless we fully understand a problem or a change pathway we cannot use our current insights to good effect.

For complex systems and solving wicked problems, at the outset, it is important to accept that things are in flux and there will be no single point in time when fully understand or achieve control of the situation. It’s all in accepting the invitation to dance!

If we are going to dance with (not manage!) complexity, then these core beliefs will need to flex and grow.



Anna Martin
Good Thinking

Evaluator, Social Worker, Facilitator, Complexity Coach, curious mischief maker and co-founder of Picture Impact.