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How Change Happens$

Duncan Green

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780198785392

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2016

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198785392.001.0001

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Systems Thinking Changes Everything

Systems Thinking Changes Everything

(p.9) 1 Systems Thinking Changes Everything
How Change Happens

Duncan Green

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the advantages of systems thinking in navigating the complexities of the future. A ‘system’ here is defined as an interconnected set of elements coherently organized in a way that achieves something. A defining property of human systems is complexity: because of the sheer number of relationships and feedback loops among their many elements, they cannot be reduced to simple chains of cause and effect. In complex systems, change results from the interplay of many diverse and apparently unrelated factors. Thus, change agents need to identify which elements are important and understand how they interact. Working in complex systems requires an iterative, collaborative, and flexible approach.

Keywords:   systems thinking, cause and effect, human systems, linear planning, reflectivists

The future is a dance between patterns and events

—Embracing Complexity1

Political and economic earthquakes are often sudden and unforeseeable, despite the false pundits who pop up later to claim they predicted them all along. Take the fall of the Berlin Wall, the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, or the Arab Spring (and ensuing winter). Even at a personal level, change is largely unpredictable: how many of us can say our lives have gone according to the plans we had as 16-year-olds?

The essential mystery of the future poses a huge challenge to activists. If change is only explicable in the rear-view mirror, how can we accurately envision the future changes we seek, let alone achieve them? How can we be sure our proposals will make things better, and not fall victim to unintended consequences? People employ many concepts to grapple with such questions. I find ‘systems’ and ‘complexity’ two of the most helpful.

A ‘system’ is an interconnected set of elements coherently organized in a way that achieves something. It is more than the sum of its parts: a body is more than an aggregate of individual cells; a university is not merely an agglomeration of individual students, professors, (p.10) and buildings; an ecosystem is not just a set of individual plants and animals.2

A defining property of human systems is complexity: because of the sheer number of relationships and feedback loops among their many elements, they cannot be reduced to simple chains of cause and effect. Think of a crowd on a city street, or a flock of starlings wheeling in the sky at dusk. Even with supercomputers, it is impossible to predict the movement of any given person or starling, but there is order; amazingly few collisions occur even on the most crowded streets.

In complex systems, change results from the interplay of many diverse and apparently unrelated factors. Those of us engaged in seeking change need to identify which elements are important and understand how they interact.

My interest in systems thinking began when collecting stories for my book From Poverty to Power (2008). The light-bulb moment came on a visit to India’s Bundelkhand region, where the poor fishing communities of Tikamgarh had won rights to more than 150 large ponds. In that struggle numerous factors interacted to create change. First, a technological shift triggered changes in behaviour: the introduction of new varieties of fish, which made the ponds more profitable, induced landlords to seize ponds that had been communal. Conflict then built pressure for government action: a group of twelve brave young fishers in one village fought back, prompting a series of violent clashes that radicalized and inspired other communities; women’s groups were organized for the first time, taking control of nine ponds. Enlightened politicians and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) helped pass new laws and the police amazed everyone by enforcing them.

The fishing communities were the real heroes of the story. They tenaciously faced down a violent campaign of intimidation, moved from direct action to advocacy, and ended up winning not only access (p.11) to the ponds but a series of legal and policy changes that benefitted all fishing families.3

The neat narrative sequence of cause and effect I’ve just written, of course, is only possible in hindsight. In the thick of the action, no-one could have said why the various actors acted as they did, or what transformed the relative power of each. Tikamgarh’s experience, like that of Bolivia’s Chiquitanos discussed in Chapter 3, highlights how unpredictable is the interaction between structures (such as state institutions), agency (by communities and individuals), and the broader context (characterized by shifts in technology, environment, demography, or norms).4

Unfortunately, the way we commonly think about change projects onto the future the neat narratives we draw from the past. Many of the mental models we use are linear plans—‘if A, then B’—with profound consequences in terms of failure, frustration, and missed opportunities. As Mike Tyson memorably said, ‘everyone has a plan 'til they get punched in the mouth’.5

Let me illustrate with a metaphor. Baking a cake is a linear ‘simple’ system. All I need do is find a recipe, buy the ingredients, make sure the oven is working, mix, bake, et voila! Some cakes are better than others (mine wouldn’t win any prizes), but the basic approach is fixed, replicable, and reasonably reliable. However bad your cake, you’ll probably be able to eat it.

Baking a cake is also a fairly accurate metaphor for the approach of many governments, aid agencies, and activist organizations. They (p.12) decide on a goal (the cake), pick a well-established method (the recipe), find some partners and allies (the ingredients), and off they go.

The trouble is that real life rarely bakes like a cake. Engaging a complex system is more like raising a child. What fate would await your new baby if you decided to go linear and design a project plan setting out activities, assumptions, outputs, and outcomes for the next twenty years and then blindly followed it? Nothing good, probably.

Instead, parents make it up as they go along. And so they should. Raising a child is iterative, an endless testing of assumptions about right and wrong, a constant adaptation to the evolving nature of the child and his or her relationship with their parents and others. Despite all the ‘best practice’ guides preying on the insecurity of new parents, child-rearing is devoid of any ‘right way’ of doing things. What really helps parents is experience (the second kid is usually easier), and the advice and reassurance of people who’ve been through it themselves—‘mentoring’ in management speak. Working in complex systems requires the same kind of iterative, collaborative, and flexible approach. Deng Xiaoping’s recipe for China’s take off epitomizes this approach: ‘We will cross the river by feeling the stones under our feet, one by one’.6

Systems are in a state of constant change. Jean Boulton, one of the authors of Embracing Complexity, likes to use the metaphor of the forest, which typically goes through cycles of growth, collapse, regeneration, and new growth.7 In the early part of the cycle’s growth phase, the number of species and of individual plants and animals increases quickly, as organisms arrive to exploit all available ecological niches. The forest’s components become more linked to one another, enhancing the ecosystem’s ‘connectedness’ and multiplying the ways the forest regulates itself and maintains its stability. However, the forest’s very connectedness and efficiency eventually reduce its capacity to cope with severe outside shocks, paving the way for a collapse and (p.13) eventual regeneration. Jean argues that activists need to adapt their analysis and strategy according to the stage that their political surroundings most closely resemble: growth, maturity, locked-in but fragile, or collapsing.

I was not a quick or easy convert to systems thinking, despite the fact that my neural pathways were shaped by my undergraduate degree in physics, where linear Newtonian mechanics quickly gave way to the more mind-bending world of quantum mechanics, wave particle duality, relativity, and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Similarly, my experience of activism has obliged me to question linear approaches to campaigning, for example, as I hesitantly embraced the realization that change doesn’t happen like that.

Once I began thinking about systems, I started to see complexity and unpredictable ‘emergent change’ everywhere—in politics, economics, at work, and even in the lives of those around me. The rest of this chapter suggests ways systems thinking may transform our understanding and approach.

Systems, economics, and development

Several great books helped me flesh out the ideas behind systems thinking and apply them to economics. They included Hernando de Soto’s Mystery of Capital,8 a brilliant description of how property rights in successful economies emerge organically from gold rushes and other economic events, and The Origin of Wealth9 by Eric Beinhocker,10 who argues that the discipline that became mainstream economics took a tragic wrong turn in the nineteenth century when its adherents chose physics rather than evolution as the basis for its thinking. (p.14) Mental models that stress stability and equilibrium (balls in bowls disturbed, then rolling back to rest) hardly capture the profound instability of real economies, which grow and evolve as technologies rise and fall, firms start up or go bust, countries wax and wane.

Replace Isaac Newton with Charles Darwin, and economies start to make much more sense. Firms, ideas, and institutions obey the basic mechanisms of evolution. First comes variation (or differentiation), the endless frenetic churn of human activity, as we attempt to come up with the next big idea, new technology, trendier restaurant, catchier tune. Then comes selection: people either like/buy your idea, or they don’t. Next comes amplification: if your app is popular, more and more people buy your product, the company grows and becomes more powerful. And a new round of variation occurs within the bounds of your successful experiment or as competitors try to wipe you out. Evolution lies at the heart of what economist Joseph Schumpeter called the ‘creative destruction’ of capitalism, and its dynamism partly explains why the centrally planned economies of the last century could not compete.

If companies want to survive in such a system, says The Origin of Wealth, they should ‘bring evolution inside and get the wheels of differentiation, selection and amplification spinning within a company. Rather than thinking of strategy as a single plan built on predictions of the future, we should think of strategy as a portfolio of experiments that competes and evolves over time.’11 The same reasoning should apply to activist organizations, and in Chapter 12, I venture some thoughts as to how they might do so.

Systems thinking raises some awkward questions for me regarding economic policy. In my years doing policy advocacy on trade and globalization, the work of economists like Ha-Joon Chang and Dani Rodrik had fully convinced me of the need for the state to play a hands-on role in economic development through some form of (p.15) industrial policy. Put in its crudest form, industrial policy boils down to ‘picking winners’—as the South Korean state did when it decided to shift its economy into shipbuilding and then electronics. That worked in South Korea and a handful of other ‘developmental states’, but failed in many others to produce modern, competitive companies because businesses used their connections to lobby for unwarranted state subsidies and protection from imports. Critics of industrial policy love to quote the aphorism ‘governments are hopeless at picking winners, but losers are really good at picking governments’.

It is a short step from accepting the systems thinking mantra that ‘evolution is cleverer than you are’12 to arguing in favour of laissez-faire policies that leave it entirely up the market what will be produced and where. Is systems thinking inherently pro-liberalization and anti-state intervention? In order to embrace Eric must I abandon Ha-Joon?

Thinking about how power operates within systems (the topic of Chapter 2) helped me resolve the dilemma. Even if markets start off with a ‘level playing field’, they self-organize into complex structures that reward winners and punish losers in the ‘positive feedback loops’ that are a common feature of systems. In the absence of countervailing forces such as state regulation or trade unions, the powerful can use their political and economic clout to get even richer—survival of the fattest, rather than the fittest—and so create growing polarization and unfairness, leading to monopoly and stagnation.13

In complex systems, institutions are needed to keep the playing field level enough to encourage the dynamism at its heart—for example, through competition policy, access to information, enhancing general technological skills, or credit and other support for small firms. And since markets should be at the service of society, not the other way around, the state and other institutions must find ways to push (p.16) markets to pursue socially desirable goals, such as greater equality, human rights, or long-term sustainability, without undermining the dynamism of the market system. A tall order, but many states have managed to balance power such that public institutions are able to respond rapidly to feedback from the real economy, while remaining sufficiently autonomous to avoid capture by vested interests.14 To my relief, it turns out that Eric and Ha-Joon are compatible, after all.

Crises as critical junctures

Change in complex systems occurs in slow steady processes such as demographic shifts and in sudden, unforeseeable jumps. Nothing seems to change until suddenly it does, a stop–start rhythm that can confound activists. When British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was asked what he most feared in politics, he reportedly replied in his wonderfully patrician style, ‘Events, dear boy’. Such ‘events’ that disrupt social, political, or economic relations are not just a prime ministerial headache. They can open the door to previously unthinkable reforms.

In Tikamgarh, in 1995, a protest in which three people were seriously injured and fishing families’ houses were burned down became a rallying point for further organization. I have heard dozens of similar accounts around the world—most community change processes include a turning point that becomes iconic and inspirational.

What worked in Tikamgarh also works on a greater scale. Such ‘critical junctures’, as the economists Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson15 call them, force political leaders to question their long-held assumptions about what constitutes ‘sound’ policies, and (p.17) make them more willing to take the risks associated with innovation, as the status quo suddenly appears less worth defending.

Much of the institutional framework we take for granted today was born of the trauma of the Great Depression and the Second World War. The disastrous failures of policy that led to these twin catastrophes profoundly affected the thinking of political and economic leaders across the world, triggering a vastly expanded role for government in managing the economy and addressing social ills, as well as precipitating the decolonization of large parts of the globe.

Similarly, in the 1970s the sharp rise in oil prices (and consequent economic stagnation and runaway inflation) marked the end of the post-war ‘Golden Age’ and gave rise to a turn away from government regulation and to the idealization of the ‘free market’. In Communist systems, at different moments, political and economic upheaval paved the way for radical economic shifts in China and Viet Nam.

Milton Friedman, the father of monetarist economics, wrote:

Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.16

Naomi Klein, in her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine,17 argues that the Right has used shocks much better than the Left, especially in recent decades. Klein cites the example of how proponents of private education in the United States managed to turn Hurricane Katrina to their advantage: ‘Within 19 months, New Orleans’ public school system had been almost completely replaced by privately run charter schools.’ According to the American Enterprise Institute ‘Katrina (p.18) accomplished in a day what Louisiana school reformers couldn’t do after years of trying.’18

NGOs are not always so nimble in spotting and seizing such opportunities. Three months into the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, I attended a meeting of Oxfam International’s chief executive officers (CEOs), at which they spent hours debating whether the uprising in Tahrir Square was likely to lead to a humanitarian crisis. Only then did the penny drop that the protests, upheaval, and overthrow of an oppressive regime were also a huge potential opportunity, at which point the assembled bosses showed admirable speed in allocating budgets for supporting civil society activists in Egypt, and backing it up with advocacy at the Arab League and elsewhere. But by then valuable time had passed; soon the optimism of revolution gave way to the violence and misery of repression.

Some progressive activists engaged in policy advocacy are better attuned to Friedman’s lesson. Within weeks of the appalling Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed over 1,100 people in April 2013, an international ‘Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh’19 was signed and delivered.20 A five-year legally binding agreement between global companies, retailers, and trade unions, the accord mandates some astounding breakthroughs: an independent inspection programme supported by the brand-name companies and involving workers and trade unions; the public disclosure of all factories, inspection reports, and corrective action plans; a commitment by signatory brands to fund improvements and maintain sourcing relationships; democratically elected health and safety committees in all factories; and worker empowerment through an extensive (p.19) training programme, complaints mechanism, and the right to refuse unsafe work.

In hindsight, we can point to several factors to explain how this grisly ‘shock as opportunity’ drove rapid movement toward better regulation:

  • A forum on labour rights in Bangladesh (the Ethical Trading Initiative) had already built a high degree of trust between traditional antagonists (companies, unions, and NGOs). Trust allowed people to get on the phone to each other right away.

  • Prior work, ongoing since 2011, had sketched the outline of a potential accord; the Rana Plaza disaster massively escalated the pressure to act on it.

  • A nascent national process (the National Action Plan for Fire Safety) gave outsiders something to support and build on.

  • Energetic leadership from two new international trade unions (IndustriALL and UNI Global Union) helped get the right people in the room.

Perhaps we should add to Friedman’s instruction ‘to keep alternatives alive and available’: progressive activists also need to build trust and connections among the key individuals who could implement the desired change.

I am not suggesting that activists become ambulance chasers, jumping on every crisis to make their point. Rather, we must understand the windows of opportunity provided by ‘events, dear boy’ as critical junctures when our long-term work creating constituencies for change, transforming attitudes and norms, and so on can suddenly come to fruition.

The world is complex—so what?

Many activists are, above all, doers, keen to change the world, starting today. They instinctively reject the first lesson of systems thinking: look hard before you leap. They get itchy with anything that smacks of (p.20) ivory tower ‘beard stroking’ and worry about ‘analysis paralysis’. In the development arena, donors often accentuate the penchant for short-termism by demanding tangible results within the timescales of project funding cycles.

My advice would be to take a deep breath, put your sense of urgency to one side for a moment, and become a ‘reflectivist’ who, in the words of Ben Ramalingam, should ‘map, observe, and listen to the system to identify the spaces where change is already happening and try to encourage and nurture them.’21

That said, another lesson of systems thinking is that you cannot understand and plan everything in advance. If each situation is different, so must be the response. One of the founders of systems thinking, Donella Meadows, talks of the need to learn to ‘dance with systems.’22 But even that may be too choreographed. Perhaps a better analogy is that activists should switch from being architects and engineers to becoming ‘ecosystem gardeners’.

Combining these two lessons makes for some surprising principles for how to bring about change:

Be flexible:

You should be willing to shelve the current plan in response to emerging events and your organization’s culture should thank the staff who alert it to signals of change. In the world of humanitarian response, this approach is standard, whereas in long-term aid programmes or campaigns people are often reluctant to shift gears, or simply fail to notice that new opportunities have opened up.

Seek fast and ongoing feedback:

If you don’t know what is going to happen, you have to detect changes in real time, especially when the windows of opportunity around such changes are short lived. That means having (or developing) acute antennae and embedding them in (p.21) multiple networks to pick up signals of change and transmit them to your organization.

Success is often accidental:

‘Fortune favours the prepared mind’, according to Louis Pasteur, pioneer of the germ theory of disease.23 Surprising breakthroughs (often subsequently rewritten as triumphs of planning!) are a recurring feature of innovation and change. One reason you need fast feedback is to spot and respond to accidental successes as early as possible. One approach that builds on success born of chance variation, positive deviance, is discussed in the next section.

Undertake multiple parallel experiments:

Activists hate failure. No-one wants to think they’ve wasted their time, or wake up to newspaper headlines about money lost or ‘wasted’ on failed projects. Compare this risk aversion to a venture capitalist who backs ten projects knowing that nine will fail, but he or she will make enough money on the tenth to more than compensate for the rest. With a venture approach you would spend less time and money designing the perfect plan, and instead pursue a ‘lean start-up’ based on best guesses about what will work, followed by a fast and frugal cycle of experimentation and adaptation until you find something that really does.24

Learn by doing (and failing):

In a complex system, it is highly unlikely you will get things right from the outset, or that they will stay right (think back to raising a child). You and your colleagues have to be ready to discuss and learn from failure, rather than sweep it under the carpet. Fast feedback on your own impact is thus just as important as feedback on the outside world, not least to detect unintended consequences. If people are keeping chickens in the latrines you are building, you probably need to go back to the drawing (p.22) board.25 Alas, my experience is that colleagues are reluctant to admit, let alone discuss, failure. A better way may be to ask ‘What have you learned?’ during the course of any given effort, which covers the same ground in a less embarrassing fashion.

Identify and discuss your rules of thumb:

When the US Marines go into combat (an archetypal complex system), they use rules of thumb (stay in contact, take the high ground, keep moving) rather than detailed ‘best-practice guidelines’. Activists do too (Have we thought about gender? What is the government doing?), but these often remain tacit, and so are not questioned, tested or improved upon. Make them explicit and review them regularly.

Convene and broker relationships:

Bringing dissimilar local players together to find their own solutions can be a particularly useful role for foreign aid organizations and other activists from outside the community in question. Effective convening and brokering requires understanding who should be invited to the table. Which players have, or could have, their hands on the levers of change? Providing them with a space for dialogue outside of their home institutions can encourage them to think in new ways.

If these principles sound a bit abstract, here are three examples of change that put systems thinking into practice.26

Chukua Hatua (‘take action’ in Swahili) is an Oxfam project in Tanzania explicitly modelled on evolutionary theory, aimed at improving the accountability of local authorities to their citizens. In (p.23) the first phase, lots of different hares were set loose, from ‘farmer animators’ who encouraged peasant communities to engage with village officials, to ‘active musicians’ who visited primary school student councils to spread the word about the benefits of community participation. The project plan stipulated that this experiment in variation would be followed at a predetermined date by selection. Communities, partners, and Oxfam staff met to identify the most successful variants, which were then expanded and adapted. Farmer animators proved the most promising; communities nominated non-farmers as animators, including a father who was trying to convince families to send their daughters to school and a woman who was organizing fellow traders at the local market. The first generation of animators was put to work training the new arrivals.27

A group of ‘development entrepreneurs’ in the Philippines,28 backed by The Asia Foundation, advocates for reforms in education, taxation, civil aviation regulation, and property rights by working in small teams (echoing Amazon’s Jeff Bezos: ‘If it takes more than two pizzas to feed the team, it is too big’).29 The teams comprise a leader, technical analysts (e.g. lawyers), lobbyists with good political skills and networks, and ‘insiders’ with deep knowledge and experience in the reform area (e.g. former civil servants). Such teams can respond rapidly to events and new opportunities, making a number of ‘small bets’ and then dropping the experiments that go nowhere.

Every two months, Oxfam’s TajWSS project to improve Tajikistan’s dismal water and sanitation systems convenes everybody involved: (p.24) seventeen government ministries and agencies, several UN bodies, international NGOs, aid agencies, academics, journalists, Tajik civil society organizations, private companies, and parliamentarians. Resisting the urge to forge a master plan, this motley grouping engages in a freewheeling discussion that has given birth to innovative partial solutions. For example, local officials have found companies willing to help with village-level chlorination and Tajik banks to help finance water systems. Its biggest victory so far is a new Water Law that establishes who is in charge, who is responsible for regulation, and who is the service provider. According to TajWSS activist Ghazi Kelani, ‘We didn’t draft it—it had been there for years in somebody’s drawer. The network raised the importance of having a law, someone dug it up and we decided it was good enough for a start.’30

Positive deviance

These principles for working in complex systems can help activists improve our day-to-day work, but they can also prompt a radical rethink. One of the most exciting alternatives to business as usual goes by the name of ‘positive deviance’.

In December 1991, Jerry and Monique Sternin arrived in Viet Nam to work for Save the Children in four communities with under-three-year-olds, most of whom were malnourished. The Sternins asked teams of volunteers to observe in homes where children were poor but well-fed. In every case they found that the mother or father was collecting a number of tiny shrimps, crabs, or snails—making for a portion ‘the size of one joint of one finger’—from the rice paddies and adding these to the child’s diet. These ‘positive deviant’ families also instructed the home babysitter to feed the child four or even five times a day, in contrast to most families who fed young children only before parents headed to the rice fields early in the morning and in the late afternoon after returning from a working day. Results were shared on (p.25) a board in the town hall, and the charts quickly became a focus of attention and buzz. By the end of the first year, 80 per cent of the children in the programme were fully rehabilitated.

In their book, The Power of Positive Deviance,31 the Sternins, with Richard Pascale, describe how the approach was subsequently applied in fifty countries, on everything from decreasing gang violence in inner city New Jersey to reducing sex trafficking of girls in rural Indonesia. The starting point is to ‘look for outliers who succeed against the odds’. But who is doing the looking also matters. If external ‘experts’ investigate the outliers and turn the results into a toolkit, little will come of it. When communities make the discovery for themselves, behavioural change can take root—providing what the authors call ‘social proof’.

Positive deviance capitalizes on a hugely energizing fact: for any given problem, someone in the community will have already identified a solution. It focuses on people’s assets and knowledge, rather than their lacks and problems. The Sternins recount their experience in Misiones Province, Argentina, where dropout rates were awful. Teachers and principals were hostile to criticism and put the blame on the parents. All that started to change when facilitators asked the ‘somersault question’: why were dropout rates much lower in some schools? Teachers then agreed to ask the parents at those schools, who rapidly identified teacher attitudes toward parents as the key. The positive deviant teachers were negotiating informal annual ‘learning contracts’ with parents. When many teachers adopted that approach, dropout rates in test schools fell by 50 per cent.

Despite its success, positive deviance remains an outlier in the aid business. The ‘standard model’ of identifying gaps, devising initiatives to fill them, and disseminating the guidance is incredibly hard to (p.26) budge. Perhaps not surprisingly, experts are often part of the problem. The Sternins write:

Those eking out existence on the margins of society grasp the simple elegance of the PD approach—in contrast to the sceptical consideration of the more educated and/or privileged. Uptake seems in inverse proportion to prosperity, formal authority, years of schooling and degrees hanging on walls.32

I can vouch from personal experience how hard it is to give up my learned role and become a facilitator. Holding back from providing your own answer when you ask a group a question is, as the Sternins put it, ‘more difficult than trying to stifle an oncoming sneeze’.


In the first film in The Matrix series (the only one worth watching), the hero, Neo, suddenly starts to see the matrix of ones and zeroes that lies beneath the surface of his world, at which point he becomes invincible. I feel similarly about systems (aside from the invincibility part). As the title of this chapter says, thinking in systems should change everything, including the way we look at politics, economics, society, and even ourselves, in new and exciting ways.

It also poses a devastating challenge to traditional linear planning approaches and to our ways of working.33 We activists need to become better ‘reflectivists’, taking the time to understand the system before (and while) engaging with it. We need to better understand the stop–start rhythm of change exhibited by complex systems and adapt our efforts accordingly. And we need to become less arrogant, more willing to learn from accidents, from failures, and from other people. Finally, we have to make friends with ambiguity and uncertainty, (p.27) while maintaining the energy and determination so essential to changing the world.

It isn’t easy, but it is entirely possible, as I hope I have shown. Once we learn to ‘dance with the system’, no other partner will do. In the next chapter, we explore the force that binds together disparate systems, the sea in which change and change agents swim: power.

Further Reading

Bibliography references:

E. Beinhocker, The Origin of Wealth: The Radical Remaking of Economics and What it Means for Business and Society (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard Business Review Press, 2007).

J. Boulton, P. Allen, and C. Bowman, Embracing Complexity: Strategic Perspectives for an Age of Turbulence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

K. Bowman, J. Chettleborough, H. Jeans, J. Rowlands, and J. Whitehead, Systems Thinking: An introduction for Oxfam Programme Staff (Oxford: Oxfam GB, 2015).

D. Burns and S. Worsley, Navigating Complexity in international Development: Facilitating Sustainable Change at Scale (Rugby: Practical Action Publishing, 2015).

D. Meadows and D.H. Wright, Thinking in Systems: A Primer (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009).

R. Pascale, J. Sternin, and M. Sternin, The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2010).

B. Ramalingam, Aid on the Edge of Chaos (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

Further Viewing

‘The Implications of Complexity for Development’, lecture by Owen Barder, http://www.cgdev.org/media/implications-complexity-development-owen-barder.


(1) Jean Boulton, Peter Allen, and Cliff Bowman, Embracing Complexity: Strategic Perspectives for an Age of Turbulence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 29. By permission of Oxford University Press.

(2) Donella Meadows and Diana Wright, Thinking in Systems: A Primer (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009).

(3) Neelkanth Mishra and Mirza Firoz Beg, Strength in Numbers: Fishing Communities in India Assert their Traditional Rights over Livelihoods Resources (Oxford: Oxfam GB on behalf of Oxfam India, 2011).

(4) In From Poverty to Power I developed this concept into a simple model for analysing processes of change. This book builds on those initial ideas. Duncan Green, From Poverty to Power: How Active Citizens and Effective States Can Change the World (Oxford: Oxfam International, 2008), Annex A: How Change Happens, p. 432.

(5) Mike Berardino, ‘Mike Tyson Explains One of his Most Famous Quotes’, Sun Sentinal, 9 November 2012, http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/2012-11-09/sports/sfl-mike-tyson-explains-one-of-his-most-famous-quotes-20121109_1_mike-tyson-undisputed-truth-famous-quotes.

(6) Arthur Sweetman and Jun Zhang, Economic Transitions with Chinese Characteristics, (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009), p. 1.

(7) Thomas Homer-Dixon, ‘Our Panarchic Future’, World Watch 22, no. 2 (March/April 2009), http://www.worldwatch.org/node/6008.

(8) Hernando de Soto, The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else (New York: Basic Books, 2000).

(9) Eric Beinhocker, The Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics (London: Random House Business Books, 2007).

(10) See also David Hamilton, Evolutionary Economics: A Study of Change in Economic Thought (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1970).

(11) Eric Beinhocker, The Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics (London: Random House Business Books, 2007).

(12) Known as Orgel’s Second Rule, after evolutionary biologist Leslie Orgel. ‘Leslie Orgel’, Wikipedia entry, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leslie_Orgel.

(13) Jean Boulton, Peter Allen, and Cliff Bowman, Embracing Complexity: Strategic Perspectives for an Age of Turbulence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

(14) Peter Evans, Embedded Autonomy: States and Industrial Transformation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

(15) Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty (New York: Crown Publishers, 2012), p. 101.

(16) Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom, 2nd ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982), p. ix.

(17) Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2007).

(18) Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2007), p. 6.

(19) ‘Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh’ (ACCORD), http://bangladeshaccord.org/.

(20) Duncan Green, ‘Will Horror and Over a Thousand Dead Be a Watershed Moment for Bangladesh?’ From Poverty to Power blog, 17 May 2013, http://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/will-horror-and-over-a-thousand-dead-be-a-watershed-moment-for-bangladesh/.

(21) Ben Ramalingam, Aid on the Edge of Chaos (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

(22) Donella Meadows and Diana Wright, Thinking in Systems: A Primer, (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009).

(23) Lecture, University of Lille (7 December 1854).

(24) Steve Blank, ‘Why the Lean Start-Up Changes Everything’, Havard Business Review (May 2013), pp. 63–72.

(25) Tim Harford, in his book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, proposes a ‘three step recipe for successful adapting: try new things, in the expectation that some will fail; make failure survivable, because it will be common; and make sure that you know when you have failed…distinguishing success from failure, oddly, can be the hardest task of all’. Tim Harford, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure (London: Little, Brown, 2011).

(26) For an excellent and much more comprehensive guide to using systems thinking in practice, see Kimberly Bowman, John Chettleborough, Helen Jeans, Jo Rowlands, and James Whitehead, Systems Thinking: An Introduction for Oxfam Programme Staff (Oxford: Oxfam GB, 2015), http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/systems-thinking-an-introduction-for-oxfam-programme-staff-579896.

(27) Duncan Green, The Chukua Hatua Accountability Programme, Tanzania (Oxford: Oxfam GB for Oxfam International, 2015). Lisa Marie Faye, personal communication, 31 August 2015.

(28) Duncan Green, ‘Is This the Best Paper Yet on Doing Development Differently/Thinking and Working Politically?’, From Poverty to Power blog, 14 January 2015, http://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/is-this-the-best-paper-yet-on-doing-development-differentlythinking-and-working-politically/.

(29) George Anders, ‘Jeff Bezos Reveals His No. 1 Secret’, Forbes, 4 April 2012, http://www.forbes.com/forbes/2012/0423/ceo-compensation-12-amazon-technology-jeff-bezos-gets-it.html.

(30) Author interview, September 2012.

(31) Richard Pascale, Jerry Sternin, and Monique Sternin, The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2010).

(32) Richard Pascale, Jerry Sternin, and Monique Sternin, The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2010), p. 8.

(33) Though not in all situations, as we shall see in Chapter 12.