[Solution]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…

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 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, ‘maps, observes, and listens to the system to identify the spaces where change is already happening and try to encourage and nurture them.’ [1]
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.’[2] 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
[1] Ben Ramalingam, Aid on the Edge of Chaos (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).
[2] D. Meadows and D.H. Wright, Thinking in Systems: A Primer, (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009)
 

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