Learning to See Systems


The key to building resilience is to understand the systems that people depend on, and to figure out what they are vulnerable to. But seeing systems takes practice. This piece looks at a simple example of seeing core systems, and using those insights to reduce risk from hazards.

This is a photo of a typical African informal settlement. These homes are here illegally, and as a result there are no city services – electricity, water, waste collection, etc. In thinking about how to reduce risk in this community, there should be no city services to take into account as capacities or vulnerabilities.

Yet look at the picture. Nearly every house has electricity and water. Many have toilets and sewage. How can this be?

Where government or property developers do not provide basic systems such as roads, power, and water, people often find ways to get those things. In this photo, there are many hoses running across the stream. These hoses have been installed by private entrepreneurs, who have illegally tapped into the city water system. Same with the electric lines. In fact many of those houses also have satellite dishes, and many in the community follow news and events from around the world on television. Walking through the settlement also revealed that entrepreneurs have set up private facilities that provide showers and toilets for a small fee. These are emergent systems – that is, they emerge by the interaction of people with their circumstances, not planned by anyone. Even where official systems don’t exist, people use their genius and energy to find a way. In complex adaptive systems, look for self-organizing systems – those things that come together without oversight or direction from anyone.

In fact the entire community should not be here, since this land is not zoned for residence or business. Yet the lack of suitable housing elsewhere in the city means that residents have few choices of other places to live, and government has few alternatives other than to look the other way.

How can seeing systems help the community reduce risk?


1. System: Electricity

Hazard: Fire — Discussions with residents of this African community, local authorities and emergency personnel showed that one of the biggest hazards in this community was fire from these illegal connections. As a result, the community arranged for an outside technician from the electric company to come in and train local entrepreneurs in how to do safer electrical connections. The local authority agreed to host the trainings, and to levy fines on anyone who continued to use unsafe connections.

2. System: Water and Sanitation

Hazard: Diarrheal disease from dirty water – While awareness of the need for good sanitation and clean drinking water is high, residents simply have few options. Private baths and toilets have sprung up in the community, charging a small fee. Residents now have flexible options, and the business is sustainable. Note: an outside donor recently funded a competing bath and toilet facility, which is charging less than the private businesses. This strikes me as unfair competition. Worse, it undermines local initiative and a long term sustainable solution.

3. System: Sanitation

Hazard and Capacity: Solid Waste – Lack of trash collection turns parts of the settlement into a waste dump, with complications for people’s health and the attractiveness of the neighborhood. Low income inhibits many people from improving their situations. Much of the waste visible in the picture can be recycled, and there is a nascent recycling industry in the city. This is an example of how individual entrepreneurs can take advantage of a hazard and turn it into improved capacity through greater income.

4. System: Ecosystem

Hazard: River – The polluted river that flows through the community poses two hazards:

  1. Pollution in it is a health hazard. Dealing with the pollution hazard means getting the industries upstream to stop dumping industrial waste into it. There are excellent laws in place for that, which are not enforced. So the community would need to form alliances with outside groups with better access to public officials, media, courts, etc. That problem probably cannot be solved by local action alone. But outside action is unlikely to take place without good organization and pressure from community groups. Action at all levels is necessary.
  2. Its location right next to houses poses a flood hazard. There are two solutions here.
    1. First, move the houses farther from the river. Legal restrictions have not functioned well in this area, so simply enforcing building codes is not an option (since the whole community would disappear in that case). Alternatively, there is an ebb and flow of houses closer to and farther away from the river every time it floods. At a point when people voluntarily move away after a flood, the community can organize to keep those houses farther away, and prevent them from creeping back.
    2. Put in mitigation measures in that newly opened up space to keep the houses from moving back in to the river banks. Residents can plant trees along the banks to absorb energy from floods and discourage building back close to the river. They can install simple biological pilings made of bamboo or similar material, and plant deep rooted grasses to protect banks not protected by cement. They can place rocks along the banks and across the river at intervals, again to slow down rushing water when floods occur.

5. System: Social Networks

Some of these solutions individuals can do on their own. But many require community organization. Slum communities are often transient, with people moving in and out all the time as their fortunes change. Surveys in this community showed a fair amount of stability. So while you can’t see it with your eyes in the picture, it was possible to organize people in this community and begin to deal with issues collectively. Of all the interventions possible, organizing people for action in their own interests is often the biggest contributor to building resilience.

Complex Adaptive Systems and Managing Social Change

Chris Allan cropped

By Chris Allan

I’ve always had a queasy feeling about how to plan programs for social change. We know we’re supposed to analyze the problem, develop a goal, objectives, activities, indicators and resources. It all makes sense from a logical point of view. But, but…How often does social change happen logically? How often have you seen a plan like this really pan out from start to finish? And if you’ve developed a whole logical framework around it, bringing in all the stakeholders to make sure everyone buys into it, it’s really hard to make adjustments as you go. You may see what’s actually happening but it can be hard to bring everyone along with you.

This kind of planning seems to misunderstand how social change really happens. We treat society as if it were a tool, a tinker toy, and we just need to get the steps in the instructions for assembly right and we’ll get the change we want.

But societies are complex adaptive systems, with all that applies.

Maybe you’ve seen the online video about the guy at the outdoor music festival who singlehandedly gets the whole crowd dancing with him. If not, check out the “Leadership Lessons from the Dancing Guy” by Derek Sievers. It’s a lesson in how to build a movement in under three seconds. Watching that video reminds that social change is messy and unpredictable, and so our plans must match that adaptability and flexibility.

The lesson here is that self-organizing groups can do remarkable things. And what they do and how they get together is very hard to predict. And that it rarely depends on a single leader – knowing how to follow is important too.

A friend recently told me about an unexpected outcome during a program promoting potato production and marketing he was visiting in Latin America. Staff of the program were upset because they hadn’t met the outputs listed in the log frame – too few potatoes produced, too few farmers engaged. But further inquiry revealed that farmers had in fact been successful in getting the municipal government to put on a regional potato fair, had begun transporting potatoes to an urban market on the coast, and were even selling to a firm that was processing potatoes into organic chips for the European export market. But the partner hadn’t thought to report on these because they weren’t strictly part of the output metric on local marketing!

OK, that’s a bit obvious, that’s just being enslaved to the log frame, and most people know that the log frame is just a plan to be adapted as you go. But they’re hard to adapt, especially if lots of groups and organizations are involved. And for social change on any decent scale to be sustainable, lots of organizations have to be involved.

So rather than trying to strangle social reality into better and better log frames, let’s take this concept of complex adaptive systems seriously.

I like the analogy of simple, complicated and complex that is often citied from the work of Frances Westley and her colleagues to understand what complexity means.[1]

Simple Complicated Complex
Baking a Cake Sending a Rocket to the Moon Raising a Child

To take other examples, designing a form for tracking staff leave is simple. Organizing an international conference is complicated. Reducing disaster risk from poverty and poor housing is complex. This means that we need to have programs that are complex too, and we need to adapt our planning and management accordingly.

How Do We Do That?

First, we’ve got to distribute decision making throughout the organization, to increase the ability of people to use their creativity and adapt quickly to circumstances. This image puts it starkly:

From this:


To this:


Note that this doesn’t mean all decisions. We need balance. A balance of predictability and oversight with decentralization and freedom. While each organization has to find that balance, generally administrative decisions need predictability and constancy, and program decisions need to adapt with circumstances to try out new approaches. In other words, don’t make people guess how much they should budget for per diem or how much leave they have, but do give them the freedom to engage with partners and communities in new ways to try out new approaches.

One way to help this adaptability happen without driving everyone nuts with constantly changing plans is to manage by values. Put simply, we have had a few fashions in management in the last few decades:

  • Management by instruction – works best for assembling products
  • Management by objectives – better for knowledge workers and others who can have some freedom to figure out how to get a specific job done
  • Management by values – appropriate for networks and loose organizations where styles and objectives may vary, but all are working to the same goals in the same general way.

For working on complex problems, agreement about core values can leave people considerable room to figure out how to get there. What is it that we envision as a sound solution to this problem, and what values are essential to the way we work?

But why work in these loose, hard to manage ways anyway? With complex social problems, it is important to work in networks, and bring in interests and talents from a variety of places.

Why Manage Networks

  • Most social problems are complex
  • Networks and Partnerships are necessary to solve these complex problems
  • Command and control doesn’t work with networked people and projects
  • Command and control doesn’t adapt well to changing circumstances and local initiative
  • Decentralized management allows flexibility and creativity

Working in this kind of hybrid organization – that has a sound administrative base and a flexible program – requires a different kind of leadership. Leaders of these networked organizations need these skills:

  • Influence rather than control
  • Ability to generate shared values
  • Build relationships
  • Comfort with a balance of stability and disorder
  • High level of autonomy
  • High level of responsibility
  • Freedom to innovate from any part of the network

This kind of management requires constant check-ins and communication.

To sum up, managing programs to deal with complex social problems requires

  • An understanding that traditional management methods don’t seem to fit well in networks
  • Self organizing teams can accomplish much independently
  • Leaders manage by values
  • A high level of communication is required to share values and agree on work

People thinking this way are still developing the tools for managing this way of working. The next part of this blog will dig into those a bit deeper. In the meantime, Heather Britt’s paper on Complexity-Aware Monitoring is a great place to start.

[1] Westley, F., Patton, M. Q., & Zimmerman, B. (2006). Getting to maybe: How the world is changed. Toronto: Random House Canada

Supporting Social Movements with Grantmaking

Chris Allan cropped

By Chris Allan

As funders we often talk about supporting movements – the environmental movement, women’s movement, etc. Yet how do we do that? What does it mean to support a movement with grants?

We can learn from movements that have been successful in the past. The civil rights movement in the United States is a classic example. We all know this person:

rosa parks

That’s Rosa Parks, and her story is famous. Tired after work one day, she was finally fed up and refused to go to the back of the bus. She wound up getting arrested, and as the churches rallied around her, the Montgomery bus boycott got started and achieved an early and important victory for the civil rights movement.

Great story, inspiring. The only problem with it is that it’s not true. In fact Rosa Parks was Secretary of the Montgomery NAACP chapter, and had just returned from a few weeks training at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, famous for its training of community organizers. While her choice not to move that day was spontaneous, it was supported by her training, and by a group named the Montgomery Improvement Association, composed of local activists and ministers, which saw an opportunity and organized the boycott. Other people had been arrested for the same offense, but no organized action developed to support them. She was chosen as an upstanding citizen with an unblemished record, and much of the boycott had been discussed in advance.

That is – there was a whole movement behind this one individual. The story of the individual who stands up and says no more is inspiring to us, but it rarely achieves much with a whole set of organizations, plans, campaigns, and leadership behind it.

Which is precisely the problem with figuring out how to support a movement with grants. Movements are by definition messy, with many different community groups, non-profit organizations, academics, government officials, media, etc. all acting at times together, at times at cross purposes, at times against each other. The following chart gives a quick sense of how confusing the whole movement was at the time.

Picture 2

Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was the face of many practicing civil disobedience, while the Black Panthers were willing to use violence as a tool.

President Kennedy told activists he was sympathetic, they just needed to move more slowly so as not to alienate moderates. Others pursued legal strategies, and the Supreme Court came to be a major player. The list goes on. Who to fund?

It helps a lot to have a simple conceptual framework of what successful movements do. It doesn’t mean you don’t have to do your homework and figure out who’s who, who’s with you and against you, and what the right timing is. But a conceptual framework will provide you with a mental structure to hang all these confusing elements on. Here’s one that has worked very well for me.

Successful movements do three things:

  1. Build movement infrastructure and mobilize resources
  2. Reframe the debate
  3. Take advantage of opportunities

Let’s break these down a bit to see what they mean.

1. Build movement infrastructure and mobilize resources

To operate effectively, movements need:

  • Organizations
  • Networks
  • Funding
  • Volunteers

These are the resources, people and connections that do the work, that bring in new people, that develop contacts with media, government officials, for-profit companies, etc. Sometimes these are community based organizations, sometimes new forms of sustainable business, sometimes connections and networks.

A great example is the National Coalition on Mining in Ghana. Over about ten years, a diverse collection of community based organizations, local, national and international NGOs, and national and international networks developed to promote the interests of local communities affected by mining. This coalition also promoted the public interest at national level by ensuring the mining revenue benefited the nation as a whole. The basic structure of the movement is illustrated here.

ghana infrastructure

Creating this infrastructure took hundreds of people and dozens of organizations. Multiple donors made over 40 grants to a variety of types of organizations for across the spectrum of possible strategies over a decade. The result is that after a decade, both government departments and mining companies realized that is was in the interests of everyone to bring any new policy or project ideas to the Coalition itself as a legitimate stakeholder.

2. Reframe the Debate

Movements shift the discussion around their issues to get people to look at them in a new way. They challenge the prevailing way that these issues are discussed. On justice in climate change, the movement successfully challenged the image that all countries need to curb emissions, pointing out that the industrialized world created the problem and benefited from it, while poorer countries now suffer many of the consequences. The feminist movement challenged the idea that gender roles are fixed and right, substituting the idea that each person has the human right to pursue opportunities in any sphere.

An excellent example of this that I have supported by grantmaking comes from Brazil. The Brazilian government has plans to build 500 dams, most of that on land where farmers and indigenous people have lived for hundreds of years. To most people, the country needs more energy from dams. To those who live in the path of the government’s plans, it looks like “de-development,” moving them backwards into homelessness and poverty. Dam affected people used a variety of tactics to increase their voice and present an alternative point of view. Tactics included:

  • alternativetechnical analyses of proposed dams
  • publiceducation
  • streetprotests
  • networkingwith similar groups across the country.

Over many years, the Movement of Dam Affected People in Brazil has successfully altered the debate in Brazil now to see that this is not a debate just about energy, but also about human rights, and treating people right so they do not become the losers in development.

Funders can support this agenda shifting by making grants for alternative technical analysis of issues, alternative media production and distribution, or supporting sustainable businesses that operate in a less destructive manner.

3. Take Advantage of Opportunities

Successful movements both create and take advantage of opportunities as they present themselves. Often these opportunities come up suddenly, from some unplanned event. If movements have set up their organizational infrastructure, and figured out how to make a case for shifting the debate, then everything is in place to act when opportunities arise.

An excellent example of this comes from Armenia. Armenian Women For Health And Healthy Environment (AWHHE) conducted educational events on proper handling of pesticides for many years. They produced educational and training materials.

Armenia women

They established contacts with government officials in the Ministries of Agriculture and Public Health. They joined an international network, the Pesticide Action Network, which provided them with many resources – people, technical studies, experience of other organizations, access to United Nations meetings on chemical safety. Yet progress was slow.

The one night fire struck a warehouse storing pesticides in the capital, spreading toxic fumes over the city. Using the opportunity, the group was able to use those contacts, educational material, and deep understanding of the issues to get the government to finally enforce the laws that are in place to regulate pesticides and protect public health.

In It for the Long Haul

So this is a simple framework to help thing about who’s who and what needs to happen to make a movement a success. There are many details in all of this to get into – how to develop leadership? What kind of funds are helpful, and what undermines movement autonomy? Do we all have to be on message, or can we reframe our messages for different audiences? That’s where the genius of activists and their allied funders can be creative and take off. It will not always be clear what to do, in fact it rarely will be. But if we see ourselves as movement funders, then we also behave as movement members, and struggle with partners to make our visions a reality.