Being strategic in the face of complexity in brief

Development Policy29 Nov 2009Seerp Wigboldus

Over the past few weeks, I have been browsing about 50 books and hundreds of articles on the wider subject area of ‘being strategic in the face of complexity’. Slowly, a pattern is starting to emerge in terms of how various authors seek to be strategic in addressing complex issues.

Quite a few authors work with more than one of the following approaches (and some approaches overlap), but surprisingly, many seem to be looking for a ‘silver bullet’. I would suggest taking a situational approach, which means considering the characteristics of a specific situation and then seeing what requires the focus of attention.

There is much more to be said about the following, but I’ll stick to this quick overview for now. I am inclined to believe that understanding these approaches basically means understanding the essence of over 90% what is written in relation to being strategic in the face of complexity.

More fundamental approaches focus on:

  • learning to think strategically to be able to adapt and find position in unknown situations with unknown problems (including what is called adaptive or resilience thinking);
  • understanding interconnectedness, synergy and coherence (thinking in systems) to be able to comprehend complex dynamics;
  • the ability to empathize, meta-cognition and other ways of looking beyond oneself and one’s own perspective to arrive at shared values and purpose;
  • learning about and understanding how change (actually) happens –intuition, practical wisdom, sense-making and other ways of tapping into core functions of life;
  • chaordic thinking and ‘sensing’ as alternative ways of ‘getting in touch’ with complex realities.

More applied approaches focus on:

  • activating scenario thinking to get a feel for the direction in which complex dynamics may go;
  • establishing simplicity – activating thinking in metaphors and stories to reduce complex issues to digestible/comprehensible proportions;
  • communicating complex matters in a clear format to establish shared understanding;
  • learning-orientated monitoring and evaluation to allow for receiving critical guidance along the way to be fed back into (adaptive) management decision-making;
  • the essential role of leadership and managing through basic principles.

Very pragmatic and practical approaches focus on:

  • creating visual representations of complex issues to create an overview of, and insight into, what is involved in those issues, and how subsets relate to each other;
  • being on top of critical information to know what needs to be considered in addressing complex issues (including the use of ‘dashboards’);
  • creating an enabling environment to bring out the potential for addressing complex issues;
  • algorithms, modelling and simulation techniques for creating abstract understanding into the future.

I would be interested in getting some response here to the question of whether the above covers the scope of approaches sufficiently, whether it is phrased properly, what may be missing, what basically comes down to the same thing, etc.

A next step may be to present a visual representation of how these approaches relate to each other.