OMLCA recent report from the Outcome Mapping Learning Community highlights that ‘insights from community members have shown that the underlying principles of Outcome Mapping acknowledge and resonate very well with complexity theory.”

This is because Outcome Mapping explicitly recognises:

  1. that social systems are made up of large numbers of independent agents who interact in interdependent and unpredictable ways;
  2. that diversity amongst the agents is necessary for adaptability and sustainability
  3. that the relationships between the parts are as important as the parts themselves;
  4. that power and control that are distributed rather than centralised;
  5. that development outcomes emerge from a process of self-organisation and are thus unpredictable;
  6. that the relationship between inputs and outcomes is nonlinear

The report suggests traditional planning monitoring and evaluation appoaches assume cause-and-effect can be understood and incorporated into programme design through the selection of the correct indicators.  However, the reality is that processes of social change are complex and emergent, and the relationship between cause and effect is difficult to understand or predict ahead of time. This emphasis on specifying indicators at the outset of projects actually works to inhibits learning about how emergent social change is taking place and how a project might be contributing to it.

By contrast, Outcome Mapping focuses on measuring success through behavioural change, which is more likely to capture the multiple dimensions of problems facing people. It also attempts to demystify the ‘black box’ of social change and improve understanding of the interactions and relationships that lead to development changes.

Such an approach allows projects to learn about what works and what does not work and why. Outcome Mapping therefore offers development actors a learning based approach which is likely to be more productive than a results-based approach when facing the change and unpredictability of complex social systems.

As the report notes:

Complexity theory thus offers a scientific framework that Outcome Mapping practitioners can use to communicate the realities of working on the ground in development that often seem to fail to filter through to the higher echelons. In other words, complexity theory can help Outcome Mapping practitioners to develop a stronger argument about why outcome mapping provides a much more suitable approach to deal with complex social processes and complex adaptive systems than the more dominant linear planning methodologies such as the Logical Framework Approach.

For further information, download the report, and read a recent Outcome Mapping Learning Community newsletter which contains an article on complexity.

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  1. […] Outcome Mapping Learning Community report which found “that the underlying principles of Outcome Mapping acknowledge and resonate very well with complexity theory.” […]


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About Ben Ramalingam

I am a researcher and writer specialising on international development and humanitarian issues. I am currently working on a number of consulting and advisory assignments for international agencies. I am also writing a book on complexity sciences and international aid which will be published by Oxford University Press. I hold Senior Research Associate and Visiting Fellow positions at the Institute of Development Studies, the Overseas Development Institute, and the London School of Economics.


Evaluation, Knowledge and learning, Reports and Studies