Complex Change: An emerging field

Complex change challenges are a specific type of change challenge that is the growing focus of an impressive array of work.  An earlier blog distinguished complex environments from simple, complicated and chaotic ones through Dave Snowden’s cynefin framework.  It can be married with my change framework to produce the accompanying Table.

As part of a World Bank investigation, I created a map of traditions that have developed to address complex change, with the goal of defining a comprehensive framework for identifying people, knowledge and methods to advance complex change as an action (and) science field. The accompanying mind map emerged from discussions, including a crowd-sourcing public webinar. The rectangular boxes represent knowledge and action traditions; the ellipses identify some of the concerns in those traditions that have given rise to action and knowledge. The traditions are distinct in the way people talk about their change goals and reasons for taking action, often in terms of methods and knowledge, and also reflect to some extent in academic divisions.

I’m most most familiar with the Business in Society (BiS) and Socio-Economic Development (SED) traditions. These have developed a particularly rich set of methodologies to engage stakeholders:  historically the BiS tradition is focused on questions about the well-being of the corporation as the core stakeholder and the SED tradition is focused on broader societal stakeholder concerns.  In the last five to 10 years these stakeholder perspectives have increasingly interacted as the perspective of corporations has broadened and the SED traditions have recognized the importance of the contribution of corporations to addressing their concerns.  However, both traditions have historically shared what might be described as an institutional-structural focus.  Individuals’ roles have historically been framed particularly in the BiS tradition around the concept of “leadership”, traditionally in an hierarchical heroic model.  Group processes, as “teams” in BiS and “communities” in SED, have spurred a rich tradition that has grown into the shared concept of “stakeholder convenings”.

These approaches historically contrast with the individual one that has developed with the spiritual-psychological one, where individuals’ awareness and insight (as opposed to heroic leadership) are emphasized.  In many cases this has produced transformational intentional communities, such as with monastic traditions or Shaker communities.  Both institutional and individual inter-actions are foci of the peace and conflict resolution ones which have received perhaps the most significant and concentrated attention as “complex change challenges” because of their obvious life-and-death issues.  Conflicts such as those with the apartheid issue in South Africa, the persistent Israel – Arab crisis, Northern Ireland troubles, internecine guerilla activity in Columbia, and violence in Central America have produced an impressive array of methods relevant to complex change from inter-personal strategies to post-conflict reconciliation commissions.

The need for effective government has produced in the political science field notable processes for national conversations around constitutional arrangements and strategies to advance agendas such as regional planning.  Recently developing are the concepts of collaborative governance involving all organizational sectors and, in contrast to standard hierarchical government, and of “experimentalist governance” which integrates flexible, recursive processes.   At an even broader cultural level, other methodologies have developed to support shifts in popular insights and values such as the wide range of media and specific methods such as Theatre of the Oppressed.  Political, cultural, and socio-economic complex change strategies have produced a range of methods associated with community organizing, collaboration and purposeful conflict generation such as with strikes.

The most impressive growth in the traditions over the past decade is associated with environmental concerns with the concepts of “resilience” (there is a “Resilience Alliance”) and “transitions” (there is a “Sustainability Transitions Research Network”).  Inspired by concerns about degradation of the natural environment originally brought biologists and natural scientists into the fray, with a gradual realization that addressing their concerns must categorically address socio-economic concerns.  This has led to holistic stakeholder strategies around natural resource issues ranging from fisheries to, increasingly, climate change.

There is the tradition of complexity science itself that is of course highly relevant to complex change.  This tradition is closely associated with system-related analysis (although other fields such as biology have developed their own systems approaches) and its tools such as system dynamics analysis and modeling.  This tradition has a rich association with complicated/reform change efforts, and a more problematic one with complex/transformational ones.  David Snowden emphasizes the danger with complex adaptive systems of confusing causality and dispositionality;  similar is the danger of taking models as representations of reality rather than as one optional reality, and accepting their goal-oriented structure as the dynamic of complex adaptive systems.

As well as these traditions of several decades, others are gaining recognition with names such as “transitions science” and “sustainability studies”.

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