Over the past two years in ALNAP, we have been leading work on humanitarian innovations which resulted in a major study, an international conference and a significant investment in innovation processes by a major donor.

It is clear to us that the term innovation is being used more and more across the aid sector, whether by senior leaders like Rajiv Shah at USAID or John Holmes of UNOCHA, operational agencies working on the ground like Oxfam and the American Red Cross, or research institutes like IDS and the Humanitarian Futures Programme.

In a recent interview with Karin Wall of Innovation Management magazine, Dr. Curt Lindberg of the Plexus Institute, provided a detailed explanation of  the relationship between innovation management and complexity science.

The interview transcript is below, and contains much of relevance to international aid agencies and those seeking to improve their performance.

Q: Could you define complexity science for our readers?

A: Complexity science is the most current attempt by scholars to understand how change and stability occur in systems of all kinds and the underlying dynamics that produce these patterns. The scientific community has identified a number of core principles of complex systems. Two of the most prominent are self-organization and emergence. These principles suggest that no individual agent in a system is able to control the behavior or outcomes in a system as they are a consequence of interactions within the system and with other systems. Complex systems thus by nature are unpredictable and generate surprises, which for those interested in innovation is promising news.

Q: Why would you, as a manager working with innovation, be concerned with complexity science?

A: If you more fully understand the dynamics associated with change and innovation, you can make better choices on how to foster change and innovation. You can also make better choices about who should be involved both within and outside the organization and what you can do to foster creative relationships and conversations. And you can make sure that there are diverse voices and experiences involved in your innovation processes because diversity is one of the driving forces in change and novelty in complex systems.

This young science also helps managers temper their expectations about control. Because complex systems, like organizations and groups, are self-organizing and unpredictable, no one no matter how powerful can control them. Managers with awareness of complex systems drop the burden and unrealistic expectation of control and focus on small actions they can take to influence patterns of interaction.

Q: Many people say that smaller companies are better at innovation because they are more flexible. And that bigger organizations are slower and resistant to change and that this is the reason why they are less innovative. Maybe the whole innovation game has more to do with complexity rather than size?

A: I think it might have something to do with the quality and the nature of interactions. Sometimes in smaller organizations there are more opportunities for the development of healthy, creative relationships among people.

I know there are some larger companies that try to structure themselves in ‘smaller’ ways to help ensure there are ample opportunities for people to interact.

Some larger organizations may become more rigid and rule-bound because many leaders and staff feel the need for more consistency and coherence across the firm. They fail to realize that adaptive, resilient systems are characterized by the paradoxical coexistence of order and disorder or stability and variability. People tend to divide into two camps on this spectrum. Some think that routines, predictability and order are required in organizations. Others think that experimentation, freedom and the pursuit of new ideas are what are required. They are both right.

Q: How would you approach innovation from a complexity perspective?

A: I would come at it with several questions in mind. One would be what kind of opportunities can I, as a manager, provide for a diverse group of people to interact in creative ways? What kind of processes might we employ to increase the likelihood of creative, generative interactions? In Plexus we have come to call these processes Liberating Structures. You may have heard of some of them – appreciative inquiry, positive deviance, open space, conversation café.

Next I would suggest that instead of trying to develop a grand plan or long term blue print for becoming more innovative managers should adopt a shorter-term perspective that focuses on the creation of “good enough” plans and stimulation of multiple small experiments, combined with a sense making orientation. What emerged from our plans, our actions? What did we learn? What seemed to be underneath the outcomes that were generated? What do the resulting insights suggest about the next series of steps and actions.

Q: You mean like a learning cycle?

Yes, rapid learning cycles, because if you go into a planning cycle with a very long term detailed “blueprint” orientation you are assuming it is possible to make long term projections about your organization and the economy and base detailed plans on these forecasts. Complexity suggests that, like the weather, it´s very difficult to always be right about your  organizational forecasts. You may have heard the old adage, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”

There is an ongoing discussion if innovation should be managed centrally in MNCs. What is your idea about this from an organizational perspective?

I think I would return to paradox and ask leaders to explore how innovations can be pursued from decentralized and centralized perspectives. For example, how can you build an organization-wide network to generate and spread innovations, a “centralized” undertaking, while simultaneously encouraging lots of experimentation at the local level, a “decentralized” undertaking.

Such a strategy, a broad network and abundant experimentation, builds on the observation that in complex systems large scale change comes from small changes. The scientific term for this in nonlinearity.

Q: What can you do then to make sure that you don´t miss those small actions or ideas that might result in something bigger and more important?

A: You can never be sure that you don´t miss anything, but you can have your antennae “on alert” and rely on a diverse network to listen for promising developments. Others may notice something you do not. You can provide opportunities for people to connect across the organization. The resulting conversations may uncover patterns, new innovations that were not previously apparent.

Q: Could you mention the three most important skills for leadership in making innovation happening?

A: First I would observe that leaders cannot make innovation happen. What they can do is lead and interact with colleagues in a manner that fosters innovation. How others respond and what they do will determine whether a culture of innovation is created.

Leaders can certainly provide time, space and skills to enable employees to participate and interact in creative ways around issues of importance. Too often we act like there are more important things to do than converse and make sense.

Leaders can also work on their personal skills – learning to be truly present and listen, to notice what new is emerging in conversation and how people are interacting, and to let go of the notion that as a leaders we know best.

The third skill would be the development of the ability to encourage employees to experiment, take risks and to learn from them.  Accompanying such encouragement must be the genuine signal that if things do not turn out as expected “that’s OK, what can we learn”. Innovation is by definition out of the ordinary. This raises anxiety. Will it work, what will people think of me, would the leader have done it this way? Trusting that the leader will understand these feelings and stands ready to provide support and opportunities for learning may help  employees to work with the anxiety associated with change and innovation.

Join the conversation! 1 Comment

  1. A pretty good interview!
    Sure, It will help the aid activists, development professionals and aid agencies, to improve their performance.


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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.


Innovation, Knowledge and learning, Leadership, Networks, Organisations, Strategy