Human systems are complex, which means that change is dynamic and often unpredictable. This uncertainty is a basic reality that needs to be taken into account when engaging in MSPs. But it doesn’t mean nothing can be planned or known.
MSPs are usually about tackling challenges that are too difficult for an individual organisation to solve. These problems are called complex, difficult, or systemic. Systemic means ‘in relation to the whole system’. Many challenges in sustainable development could be called systemic. In order to look at systemic problems, we need to think in terms of whole systems.
Before thinking about systemic change, we need to understand the idea of complexity. Complexity thinking means using the understanding of the behaviour of complex systems when trying to purposefully change or intervene in them. The critical insight is that while complex systems cannot be fully controlled, the directions in which they evolve can be influenced. Much of this influence has to do not with top down control but with shaping the conditions under which individual actors and organisations engage with each other. Understanding the complexity of a situation makes it possible to design interventions that are structured but not presuming a linearity that in reality does not exist.
Integrating the insights of complexity thinking in the design and facilitation of MSPs creates leverage for facilitators to foster transformative change. Often things do not go as planned. Promising MSPs are designed around multiple cycles of reflection, planning and action so they can be adapted to unexpected change (including to unintended impacts of the MSP itself). Working with Theory of Change can be a welcome approach for facilitators when it is contingent, dynamic and continually revised.
In complex systems change happens because of the actions of many different actors. Instead of only pursuing particular outcomes, building relationships is an important cornerstone of a successful approach. A broad network of support is vital, and a critical eye to centralized or top down approaches is indispensable.
In the evolution of complex systems, failure is a common event and just a few big successes change the system. When failed approaches do not discourage but are carefully scanned for lessons learnt, an entrepreneurial heart will have the best chances to notice and support emerging successes, which may be the triggers of fundamental change.