By Sylvia Cheuy, Tamarack – An Institute for Community Engagement
Communities, both rural and urban, are facing an array of inter-related challenges as they strive to create positive futures: under-employment, under-resource schools, insufficient affordable housing, poor health, and more. Those of us committed to affecting positive community change in these situations know that the complexity of our work makes it particularly challenging.
The just-released resource Complexity and Community Change: Managing Adaptively to Improve Effectiveness, authored by Patricia Auspos and Mark Cabaj, is a resource to support those working on community change efforts to enhance their effectiveness by viewing their work through the lens of complexity and adopting an adaptive approach in response to it.
Much of the work of community change is based upon three primary functions: strategy and planning; adaptive management; and learning and evaluation. In the face of complexity, each of these functions require different mind-sets and practices.
Planning and Strategy in Complexity
When traditional approaches to strategy and planning are applied to complex situations, three typical flaws often result:
- Excessive Up-front Planning Before Doing – This can result in a paralysis in the face of the complexity, a plan not grounded in context, or a lengthy planning process that tests patience of all involved and preparation;
- Weak Learning - This is the result of the emphasis on learning being too heavily placed at the front-end of a project’s planning phase, and some emphasis on learning at the end of the project in its evaluation. Not only is there typically very little learning being captured during implementation, but the learning that does occur in this phase is usually focused on overcoming problems and rarely focuses on reconsidering the nature of the problem and/or reconsidering the strategy; and
- Rigid, Inflexible Implementation – Often because of the lengthy up-front planning, traditional approaches rarely encourage adapting the strategy and plan in response to shifts in context or new knowledge, thereby limiting the plan’s ultimate effectiveness.
In developing strategies and plans for complex situations, there is a tension between being focused and intentional and being flexible and adaptive. Practitioners have developed a continuum of strategies which include:
- Emergent Strategies – The group develops a strategy through a process of learning by doing;
- Planned Strategies - The group operates with relatively well-defined goals, clear priority areas and boundaries of action, and a well-articulated plan of activities; and
- Umbrella Strategies – The group operates with relatively well-defined goals, and clear priority areas and boundaries of action, but leaves the details of the strategy to be sorted out by other actors or levels of the organization.
Typically groups facing a complex issue progress from an initial emergent strategy and, after a process of experimentation, develop an umbrella strategy and then ultimately a planned strategy. However, there are many examples of groups that replace their planned strategy with an emergent or umbrella strategy in the face of a shifting environment or new learnings that make their planned strategy obsolete. The work of crafting, testing, and upgrading strategy, is an adaptive process in itself.
Complexity Requires Adaptive Management
Adaptive Management is a complexity-based approach to management which accepts that plans must be held “lightly” and adjusted frequently to reflect new learnings and shifts in context. It assumes that the process of adapting plans is continuous. As an approach it is best described as “a structured, iterative process of decision-making in the face of uncertainty that places a high value on both monitoring and learning about the effectiveness of different interventions.” While managers do develop pathways for moving forward and practical measures for implementation, the difference from more traditional management situations is that it is expected that these plans will be adjusted, often quickly.
Managers who are effective at adaptive management are guided by three simple rules:
- Plan to Re-plan - Understand and expect from the start that plans will need to be reviewed and upgraded frequently;
- Plan for Many Scales and Horizons - Plans are usually required for different levels of the organization as well as different time horizons (weekly, monthly, annually etc.); and
- Plan for Surprise - Strategies may provide a general sense of direction but implementers should watch for and pursue additional opportunities that emerge if they align with the overall mission and strategy.
Adaptive management requires monitoring mechanisms that provide robust, real-time feedback on activities, their effects and their context. This data may be used to adjust plans and it may also generate insights that lead to questioning the strategy itself or the initial understanding of the problem.
The Implications of Complexity on Learning and Evaluation
In the work of community change, evaluations tend to assess programmatic outcomes and population-level changes. However, many such initiatives also monitor the extent to which their work has led to shifts in the complex systems that contribute to community well-being which include changes in policies, culture and or power relationships.
When working on complex issues, it is important that the work of learning and evaluation is designed in ways that practitioners can use to inform their emergent and adaptive work. Evaluations must match their purpose and context and participatory assessment is an important component of learning. Most importantly, approaches to evaluation in complex situations need to be designed in a way that informs rather than short-circuits emergent and adaptive strategy and action.
Developmental evaluation – an approach to evaluation that is designed for emergent and adaptive change efforts, and strategic learning – an approach that encourages practitioners to draw on multiple sources of data to inform their constantly evolving strategy, are two methodologies for learning and evaluation that encompass the following complexity-aware practices:
- Use Evaluative Processes to Inform Strategy Development and Theory of Change – Evaluators can help practitioners track the learnings and results of their multiple actions and use them to craft a more robust theory of change and outcome expectations, a point at which more traditional evaluation practices may be appropriate.
- Focus on Providing Real-time Feedback for Practitioners – The pace at which practitioners operate varies and shifts all the time. To be useful, evaluation should be designed to provide feedback that fits practitioners’ window of usefulness rather than an artificially scheduled midterm and end-of-project reporting period.
- Facilitate Processes to Help Practitioners Make Sense of and Use Data – The volume and diversity of data in emergent and adaptive work can be overwhelming. Evaluators can help facilitate the translation of data into useful messages and link them to decision-making processes.
- Adapt the Evaluation Design to Co-evolve with the Emerging Strategy - As practitioners’ strategy and interventions emerge, so too will their evaluation questions and requirements. Evaluators should continually adapt their evaluations to match the evolution of practitioners’ information needs.
- Embed Evaluators into the Change Process – The complex nature of place-based community change makes it easier for evaluators to help practitioners learn and adapt in real time if they are working alongside the practitioners and have frequent opportunities to communicate, rather than drop into the process periodically at predetermined dates.
Over the years, a range of practices have been developed that are better suited to the strategy, management and evaluation of complex contexts. These include:
- Employing a continuum of strategies, from loose to tight, that reflect the uncertainty of their context;
- Adopting different models of flexible planning and implementation; and
- Using an evaluation approach that encourages experimentation and learning.
Our shared challenge is to build the capacity of the field to integrate these practices, and the lens of complexity, into our work. This capacity-building effort must span beyond community change workers and ultimately encompass the broader network of funders, researchers, and community and organizational leaders who create an enabling environment for community change to occur.
By making the ideas and practices for working with complexity more explicit and robust for the field of community change, we will see them become more readily recognized, accepted, and supported as legitimate and enlarge the repertoire of adaptive practice in community change efforts. Complexity and Community Change has contributed to the development of a common framework and vocabulary that will make it easier to understand and communicate about complexity and adaptive practice to others.
- Download Complexity and Community Change by Patricia Auspos and Mark Cabaj
- Join Mark Cabaj and Liz Weaver at Tamarack’s Evaluating Community Impact, Winnipeg, Nov 18-20, 2014
- Listen to Exploring The Central Role of Community in Collective Impact, a webinar with Mark Cabaj & Jay Connor
- Visit the Aspen Institute’s Roundtable on Community Change webpage
- Find more resources on collective impact and complexity at www.tamarackcci.ca
Originally published in Engage!, Tamarack’s free monthly e-magazine.