The Art of Navigating Complexity

Designing change in our complex world

By Jessica Conrad

It’s likely no secret to any of you that the world is becoming increasingly complex and difficult to navigate. We see some striking evidence in the contradictions our current systems create. Take, for example, housing in the United States. According to recent data from Amnesty International, roughly 18.5 million homes stood vacant across the country within the last decade, while 3.5 million individuals were unsheltered. Or take our food system, which offers yet another unsettling example, with the United States Department of Agriculture reporting that 11.8 percent of American households experienced food insecurity within the last two years, while at the same time estimating food waste at 30 to 40 percent of the food supply. For all of us working on social and environmental change, it’s difficult to imagine feeling anything less than daunted by the mess we’ve made as a society. How can it be that there are six empty homes for every unsheltered person? So much food waste and so many hungry families? And what about the thousands of nonprofit organizations and community activists, and hundreds of millions of philanthropic dollars that have gone into addressing these issues? It makes me think that we just have to ask harder questions: What makes these systems so complex? What can we do differently to work together toward long-lasting systems change in this current context?

The Garfield Foundation and its nonprofit and philanthropic partners were confronted with similar questions about complexity when they set out to transform the Midwest energy system in the early 2000s. I joined the project years later as community manager of the collaborative network that formed in response to these questions, and since then, I’ve gone on to study more deeply the ideas that inspired the network and how it evolved. What follows is some of what I’ve learned.

When Garfield and its initial partners came together to address the need for more clean energy in the Midwest, the group’s first step was to create a shared understanding of the terrain they found themselves working within in order to understand how they might collectively move forward. The Garfield Foundation hired a consultant to create a “systems map” and, through one-on-one interviews, each individual participant contributed their unique perspective, along with their organizational strategies and goals, to a picture of what the energy system looked like across eight states. Michael Nobel, executive director of Fresh Energy in St. Paul, Minnesota, reflects on the experience:

“What [the systems change consultant] did that was really powerful and really different was to go to all the actors one by one by one and have them tell him their story. Their theory of change. Their map of how they do their work. He would ask questions like, ‘What are you trying to do? Where on the system are you trying to push? What is your strategy?’…I was just blown away that there was going to be a map of the system.”

The mapping process and analysis that followed is ultimately what made it possible for the group to identify the systems-level leverage points that would focus their collaborative action and help accelerate the transition off of fossil fuels and onto renewables in the Midwest. Importantly, the mapping process also laid a strong foundation for collaboration by supporting the group in creating a shared understanding about the system’s core elements and their interconnections — it’s stocks and flows and feedback loops — and (thus) about the behavior of the system as a whole.

What exactly did the group see in the map? What signs of complexity did it offer, and what implications did that have for their collective action? As it turns out, complex systems have several characteristics that distinguish them from four other “system states” (simple, complicated, complex, and disorderly) and that have important implications for decision-making and planning. These characteristics, which also appeared in the map of the Midwestern energy system, include:

  • High levels of connectivity between elements, creating a web of interdependent relationships and feedback loops within the system;
  • Large amounts of information generated constantly, as a result of the high levels of connectivity and interaction;
  • Adaptive actors that change their behavior autonomously, based on their interactions with their environment;
  • Emergent behavior by actors; and
  • Non-linear cause and effect relationships, which means elements and events are linked to one another through many direct and indirect paths.

In the case of the Midwestern energy system, the group identified markets, legal structures, and state and federal policies as some core elements of the system that were subject to change with the influence of a diverse mix of actors, including elected officials, citizens, advocacy organizations, foundations, grassroots organizations, policy analysis groups, and more. One can easily imagine how quickly the “behavior” of any of these elements or actors could shift in response to changes in the relationships between them — and how any behavior change might cause a ripple of effects within the system. For example, changes in public support or opposition to clean energy might lead to changes in market value and demand for various energy sources, which could then cause ripple effects throughout the whole system.

Making sense of complexity is a daunting prospect and stops many of us in our tracks. With adaptive, emergent, and non-linear qualities, as well as high levels of connectivity and information generation, complex systems seem difficult to navigate at best. Thankfully, with the arrival of complexity science in the 20th century, we now have new sense-making frameworks, models and tools in our hands. One useful framework for both understanding what the characteristics of complexity (and the four other system states) mean and what they mean for decision-making and planning is the Cynefin Framework, developed by Welsh researcher Dave Snowden.

The framework highlights nonlinear causal relationships as a guidepost for change agents working in complex systems. Since a complex system’s relationships are mutually influenced by the behavior of actors and elements within the system, the relationship between cause and effect is nonlinear. Since this relationship is nonlinear, it cannot be predicted and can only be perceived in hindsight, which therefore means it is practically impossible to prescribe a predetermined set of steps for achieving a desired outcome. Instead, we can navigate complexity by first identifying repeating patterns and principles within each system and then by applying them in every unique situation.

Returning again to the case of the Midwestern energy system, in the early 2000s it was impossible for the group who participated in systems mapping to predict how to achieve their ambitious initial goal of reducing emissions from the electric sector 80% by 2030, even with the map in hand. Although the map helped identify four systems-level leverage points — increasing the demand for energy efficiency and clean energy, reducing the demand for coal-fired electricity generation, and retiring existing coal plants — the group couldn’t use the map to predict, for example, the specific sequence of steps (or causal chain of events), required for bringing enough gigawatts of clean and renewable energy online to replace coal-fired electricity generation across the region. The levels of connectivity, interdependence, dynamism, and unpredictability in the system were (and continue to be) simply too high for that kind of planning. What’s more, these quick examples mostly highlight the infrastructure changes needed to shift the system but say nothing of the critical social and political changes required to center economic, social, and racial justice in the clean energy solutions that are the ultimate goal. This ethics layer sits at the heart of the work today.

Without the ability to follow a clear set of steps or “best practices” for addressing today’s most pressing challenges, it’s no wonder we feel daunted, especially as the intensity and urgency of issues such as climate change escalate at an utterly dizzying pace. The Cynefin Framework suggests that the art of navigating complexity lies in “emergent practice,” an approach Snowden says involves “probing, sensing, and responding.” This essentially means drawing on our collective ingenuity and intelligence to prototype many possible actions to shift a system, paying attention to what works and what doesn’t, and then responding — amplifying actions that lead to good results and stopping actions that are less effective. Emergent practices are informed by the repeating principles and patterns observed in a complex system’s behavior, and advances can be made with the recognition that we don’t know the best way forward in advance.

Whether the Garfield team and its collaborators would have used the phrase “emergent practice” in the early 2000s or not, it’s a fitting way to think about how their work in the Midwest evolved. Soon after the systems analysis was complete, participants self-organized into working groups to push against identified leverage points, began setting strategy in service of their shared overarching goal and formed a steering committee to guide and reflect on the work as a whole. What emerged was RE-AMP, a collaborative network designed with distributed leadership and minimal infrastructure. RE-AMP offered space for network members to develop trusting relationships, to think big, to adapt strategies to the changing contexts across the region, and to co-create innovative campaigns to advance policies and infrastructure for a vibrant clean energy economy. While there have been countless important wins, the work has not been perfect. Campaigns have failed and the work has been (and still is) messy. What matters most, however, is the ability to reflect and learn from these experiences and to adapt and continue prototyping. The work of shifting complex systems is a long game, and after 15 years tackling Midwest climate change, the fight continues.

It’s become increasingly clear that our current systems are riddled with terrible contradictions — abundant renewable energy sources and a reliance on dirty energy, vacant homes and homelessness, food insecurity and food waste — because they were designed for linear problems with best practice solutions. If we could draw a straight line between the number of vacant homes and unsheltered people, we wouldn’t face a worsening homelessness crisis in cities across the U.S. If we could draw a straight line between people in need and food excess, American families wouldn’t suffer from hunger. But things aren’t that simple, and we can no longer rely on traditional approaches to problem-solving. What’s needed are systems change approaches that support connection and learning, accommodate emergence, and offer pathways to solutions commensurate with the complexity and scale of the challenges we face. Ironically, we need to adopt a beginner’s mind to master the art of navigating complexity.

Jessica Conrad is a consultant with the Garfield Foundation.

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