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Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Designing programs that work better in complex adaptive systems

Ann Larson
Social Dimensions

I became interested in complex adaptive systems (CAS) in 2013. I lead a team identifying lessons from 18 programs scaling up women’s and children’s health innovations. It became clear that a critical success factor was how effective the implementation team was at recognising and responding to challenges. With colleagues, I learned about the properties of CAS, examined if they were present in several case studies of national scale-ups, and uncovered the effective and ineffective responses to the unexpected turn of events (Larson, McPherson, Posner, LaFond, & Ricca, 2015). As a result of this work, I see properties of CAS operating everywhere.

A consensus on how to create change within a CAS is emerging, based on experience and backed by a growing body of research.  This presentation briefly describes some of the most commonly stated principles, and then asks the question, ‘why are these practices not informing the design of programs, especially in international development?’ It appears that this is not due to lack of knowledge or interest. Instead, it arises from the nature of donor organizations and the power relations between those who commission, conduct and assess the designs on the one hand and the government officials, local NGO staff, front line staff and community members on the other hand.

Next, the presentation gives an overview of complexity-sensitive design approaches that could improve projects’ implementation and impact. There are many promising methods being trialled.  However, they should be accompanied with a large yellow sticker: USE WITH CAUTION. Recent reviews suggest that they are difficult for stakeholders to understand and conduct (Carey et al., 2015) and are not congruent with donor requirements (Ramalingam, Laric, & Primrose, 2014). Importantly, pilots of the use of systems thinking to design programs are not validated; we do not know if they actually create accurate descriptions of how systems work or contribute to improved outcomes (Carey et al., 2015).

This presentation, originally given at an evaluation conference, argues that evaluators and the process of evaluation should be central to complexity-sensitive design. First, the information used to inform designs needs to unite rigorous, generalizable evidence and nuanced experience of working within the specific context. Evaluators regularly draw on both sources of knowledge. Second, these design approaches need evaluating. What value do they offer over conventional methods and are they really as appropriate, effective and efficient as their proponents promise?

Presentation is available here


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