Simple, Complicated, Complex, Chaotic – a way to make sense – part 3

Previous posts introduced the Cynefin framework and described a bit of how it helps make sense.

Where it gets messy

Distinguishing between the complicated and complex quadrants is the biggest challenge.

As I ponder the Cynefin framework, I realize that distinction is the cause of many heated differences of opinion.

(This series of articles is cross-posted from my other blog, Nonprofit Update. I’ll put them on this blog as well because the Cynefin Framework is quite helpful for understanding the messy world around us.)

It is also the cause of many unintended consequences. I’ve talked about that a lot on my blogs.

Applying the solutions from the complicated quadrant to issues in the complex quadrant is the conceptual cause of most of the harm from those unintended consequences.

Aleem Walji explains the need to correctly identify the quadrant in his post, Complicated vs. Complex Part I: Why is Scaling Up So Elusive in Development: What Can Be Done?

His article introduced me to the Cynefin Framework. Thank you, sir!

Here are a couple of his comments on how to apply the sense-making structure to development.

Here is the challenge:

The problem is that we’re not very good at distinguishing between complicated and complex systems. Complex problems require very different methods to solve. For starters, you can’t replicate a solution to a complex problem. And any one answer is unlikely to have a sustained impact.

Implications for development

The challenge applied to one specific area:

Increasing agricultural productivity in Sub-Saharan Africa is a good example. If we approach it as a complicated problem, we start with improved seed varieties and changing agricultural practices (e.g. adding fertilizers)

Just use those new seeds, add fertilizers, and production will blossom, right?

Not quite.  He continues:

What this ignores, however, is the interplay between farming practice, climate change, and resilience ecology.  …  I recall a colleague explaining that illiterate farmers in Northern Kenya could remember rainfall patterns for more than a decade and apply them to cropping patterns and rotation. And when outside experts insisted on using a more limited number of high-yielding seeds, farmers resisted since they were playing the long-game (thankfully).

There are far more complex relationships than what the outside experts knew about. Ironically, the uneducated farmers knew their environment (and farming!) better than the experts.

The broader challenge:

But if we continue treating complex problems as complicated (i.e. solvable by an algorithm or technical fix), we will continue to prescribe remedies with little regard for context and variation.

Here is a superb description of the difference between complicated and complex:

At the World Bank, we’ve learned over the past 50 years that building roads, dams and schools is not the same as reforming healthcare, improving education, and changing water distribution systems.  …  There are no instant solutions on tap. We need eyes and ears on the ground, constant tweaking, and robust feedback systems that allow us to learn as we do.

Constructing, equipping & staffing a hospital is not the same as improving health care.

There are many implications of realizing that some issue is a complex problem instead of merely complicated.

Just for starters, we all, collectively, need to be a lot more humble, allow room for experimentation, and even acknowledge some projects will fail (without destroying the organization or people who led the effort).

This has major implications in the relief and development world. Also for how we look at U.S. charities and their fundraising efforts.

Next post: Implications for economic discussion. Also unintended consequences.

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