University of South Australia, AUS
It is increasingly recognized that complexity informed approaches are required to address the complex wicked problems that societies face. For these approaches, the goal is not to find the best solution for the problem but rather to increase the coherence and effectiveness of a solution ecosystem.
This paper describes the need, development, implementation, evaluation and student initiatives of a complex systems leadership program. The program takes a problem and project based learning approach that includes participants using an online tool for systemic change to address a wicked problem of their choice. An evaluation of the program's pilot and observations of program participants since the pilot's evaluation suggest that complexity informed leadership programs on their own are insufficient for addressing wicked problems. It is argued that what is required in order to achieve significant impact, is for such programs to be embedded into a collaborative Lab methodology that has been purposefully designed to address wicked problems.
It is widely accepted that complexity informed approaches are required to achieve the systemic change that is required to address wicked problems (Australian Public Service Commission, 2007; Kania & Kramer, 2013; Davies et al., 2012). Wicked problems are the complex social policy problems that societies face which cannot be successfully addressed with traditional linear, analytical approaches (Rittel & Webber, 1973). Characteristics of wicked problems include: they have multiple causes, they have many interdependencies, different stakeholders have a different understanding of what the problem is and therefore different stakeholders have conflicting goals, they have no clear solution, attempts to address them often leads to unforeseen consequences due to their multi-causality and interdependency, they adapt: because of the interdependencies changes to one part of the problem can have unforeseen consequences for other parts of the problem, and they are context specific (Australian Public Service Commission, 2007). Examples of complexity informed approaches that have been recommended for addressing wicked problems include collective impact, systemic innovation, solution ecosystem and complex systems leadership approaches.
The term "collective impact" was coined by John Kania and Mark Kramer in a seminal paper of the same title that was published in 2011 in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. The collective impact approach identifies five conditions for cross-sector collaborations to achieve progress towards addressing a wicked problem: common agenda, shared measurement systems, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication, and a backbone support structure (Kania & Kramer 2011: 39). Kania and Kramer (2013: 3) argue that if you create these five conditions for collective impact, then improved, non-controlled, ways of working emerge. The term emergence is defined by Kania and Kramer (2013: 3):
Taken from the field of complexity science, "emergence" is a term that is used to describe events that are unpredictable, which seem to result from the interactions between elements, and which no one organization or individual can control.
According to the European Commission-funded Social Innovation Europe Project, "systemic social innovation" is the most appropriate approach for addressing wicked problems (Davies et al., 2012: 4). Systemic social innovation is defined as 'a set of interconnected innovations, where each is dependent on the other, with innovation both in the parts of the system and in the ways that they interact' (Davies et al., 2012: 4). According to Davies et al. (2012: 3) addressing wicked problems through a systemic social innovation approach is assisted when practitioners have an 'understanding of complexity and complex adaptive systems'.
Ecosystems are complex adaptive systems (Levin, 1998: 431). Eggers and Muoio (2015) argue that addressing wicked problems requires a "solution ecosystem" approach that does not focus on the one best solution. A solution ecosystem for a particular wicked problem and geographical community, consists of all the initiatives that are addressing any of the interdependent causal factors that underpin the wicked problem and all of the organizations that are partnering on those initiatives.
Complex systems leadership theories are leadership approaches based on complexity sciences (Hazy et al., 2007: 2). These leadership approaches consider leadership not to be held in a particular person or role but to be a process embedded in all of the interactions amongst agents in a system (McKelvey & Lichtenstein, 2007: 94). As a problem solving approach, they do not focus on finding the one way to solve a complex problem, instead their focus is on providing a framework within which stakeholders can learn, interact and adapt to maximize their effectiveness in solving complex problems (Geyer, 2003: 254).
The program that is the focus of this paper is Wicked Lab's Complex Systems Leadership Program. While this program is described as a complex systems leadership program, it also supports other complexity informed approaches including the collective impact, systemic innovation and solution ecosystem approaches.
The evaluation of the pilot of the Complex Systems Leadership Program demonstrated that the program developed in participants the knowledge and skills required for addressing wicked problems. While there is evidence that the program's pilot did develop the required knowledge and skills, there was no evidence that participation in the program contributed toward actual systemic change. This is not surprising as there is little evidence that training in general leads to valuable performance results (Brinkerhoff, 2006a) due to there being a complex range of factors "that interacts with the training, and enhances its effects or impedes them" (Brinkerhoff, 2006b: 22).
It is argued in this paper that some of the factors that prevent complexity informed training from being able to address wicked problems can be resolved if training programs are embedded into a Lab methodology that has been purposefully designed to address wicked problems. To support this proposition the findings from the evaluation of the Complex Systems Leadership Program's pilot and observations of the development of program participants projects since completing the program are described.
The paper is structured as follows. After discussing the need for the Complex Systems Leadership Program, the development of the program's pedagogy and curriculum to meet this need is outlined. The findings from the evaluation of the pilot program and observations of program participants projects are then discussed. The paper concludes by highlighting how embedding the training program in a Lab methodology has the potential to increase the program's impact.
The need for the Complex Systems Leadership Program was identified through discussions with potential users of Wicked Lab's online tool for systemic change. This tool is based on a model to assist communities to create systems change that was developed during a longitudinal research project. During this research project, it was shown that systems change could be supported by focusing on nine focus areas and thirty-six associated initiative characteristics that enable systemic innovation and change to occur in communities (Zivkovic, 2015). A detailed description of the model is provided in the December 2015 edition of the journal Emergence: Complexity & Organization (Zivkovic, 2015).
The model's nine focus areas center of creating the enabling conditions for systemic change. Five of these focus areas and their associated initiative characteristics support the creation of systemic innovation and change in communities by increasing the coherence and building the adaptive capacity of solution ecosystems. The five focus areas are: create a disequilibrium state, amplify action, encourage self-organization, stabilize feedback and enable information flows. These five focus areas align to the 'now well understood path' (Thietart & Forgues, 2011: 61) that supports the emergence of new ways of working that have increased system coherence, function and performance. Four complex systems leadership theories inform these five focus areas. These are: Lichtenstein and Plowman's (2009) leadership of emergence, Snowden and Boone's (2007) tools for managing in a complex context, Surie and Hazy's (2006) and Goldstein et al.'s (2010) generative leadership, and Uhl-Bien et al.'s (2008) complexity leadership theory.
The model's remaining four focus areas and their initiative characteristics concentrate on enabling government systems to balance unplanned exploration and planned exploitation. It is argued in the literature that in order for governments to be able to take a complexity approach, government systems need to have the ability to balance the unplanned exploration of solutions with communities and the planned exploitation of knowledge, ideas and innovations that emerge from community-led activities (Duit& Galaz, 2008: 319; Moobela, 2005: 35). Theoretical concepts informing these focus areas and their initiative characteristics include: seeds of emergence (Uhl-Bien et al., 2008: 209) and creating ecologies of innovation (Surie & Hazy, 2006: 17) from complex systems leadership theories, soft power from international relations theory (Nye, 2004), and street-level bureaucracy (Lipsky, 1980) and meta-governance (Jessop, 1998) from public administration theory.
The model has received a number of awards: a paper describing the model was awarded the Best Overall Paper Award at the International Social Innovation Research Conference in 2012 (Zivkovic, 2012), the developer of the model received a Fresh Scientist Award for the model (Science in the Public, 2016) and the idea of developing an online tool based on the model received the Pank Prize for Entrepreneurship (University of South Australia, 2015).
The awareness of the need to convert the model into an online tool came from the experience of attempting to use the model as a paper-based tool during a workshop to address the problem of food insecurity. It quickly became apparent that using the model as a paper-based tool was problematic: it was difficult to record and update on paper the numerous community initiatives that are part of the problem's solution ecosystem and to record and continually update on paper how these initiatives align to the model\'s nine focus areas and thirty-six initiative characteristics.
Despite the need for this online tool, once it was developed it was not easy for the tool to be accepted by practitioners because the online tool is a discontinuous innovation and organizations are often locked into ineffective ways of addressing wicked problems. Discontinuous innovations are products or services that require customers to change their current way of working or to modify other products and services that they currently rely on (Moore, 2002: 10). Wicked Lab's online Tool for Systemic Change is a discontinuous innovation as it requires communities and governments to recognize that traditional linear planning processes are not appropriate for addressing complex wicked problems and that complexity informed approaches are required in order to create the enabling conditions that are necessary for system transitions to occur.
Initial meetings with potential clients identified that in order for prospective clients to appreciate the online tool's benefits they would need to understand: what wicked problems are, why a complexity approach is required to address wicked problems, and why the features of the online tool are required to address wicked problems. Moore's (2002) concept of a whole product solution provides an approach for adding to the tool so that it can achieve these identified requirements. Moore (2002: 20) argues that in order to introduce a discontinuous innovation such as Wicked Lab's online tool to the early mainstream market a "whole product solution" needs to be developed that includes components such a training, support and procedures (Moore, 2002: 113).
To contribute towards the creation of a whole product solution Wicked Lab developed its Complex Systems Leadership Program. The program takes an inquiry-based pedagogical approach: problem-based and project-based learning underpins the program. "Problem-based learning is defined as the learning that occurs through the process of trying to solve or manage a real-life problem" (Barrows cited in Sadlo 2014: 7) and project-based learning is defined as (Markham et al., 2003: 4):
A systematic teaching method that engages students in learning knowledge and skills through an extended inquiry process structured around complex, authentic questions and carefully designed projects and tasks.
Support in undertaking the program and using the tool is provided throughout the program by way of monthly online mentoring sessions.
The Complex Systems Leadership Program consists of three units of study which are undertaken online during a six-month period. Unit 1 focuses on participants understanding the characteristics of wicked problems and why a complexity approach is required to address them. In Unit 2 participants gain an understanding of initiative characteristics that assist communities to strengthen their adaptive dynamics and undertake transitions, and in Unit 3 they gain an understanding of initiative characteristics that assist governments to support transition approaches.
During each of the program's units, participants use Wicked Lab's online tool to address a wicked problem of their choice in a geographical community of their choice. In Unit 1, participants define the boundary of their solution ecosystem: the geographical boundary and the wicked problem, and enter into the software all of the initiatives and organizations within that geographical boundary that are addressing any of the underpinning causal factors of their targeted wicked problem. In Unit 2, for each of the initiatives that were entered into the software in Unit 1, participants record in the software if the initiative has any of the initiative characteristics that assist communities to transition to a new state that has increased coherence and performance. During Unit 3 participants enter into the software if any of the initiatives have initiative characteristics that strengthen the interface between community and government systems.
The program was piloted over a six month period in 2017. Four diverse participants undertook the pilot program: a European consultant, a South Australian local government employee, a South Australian state government employee and a community leader. During the program the European consultant addressed the complex problem of how to spread and embed a new approach to the services that his large organization provides throughout the organization. The local government employee addressed the wicked problem of food security in a council ward and the state government employee addressed the wicked problem of prisoner reintegration in South Australia. The community leader focused on the creation of an ecologically sustainable food system in Northern Adelaide.
At the completion of the program's pilot an online post-program survey form was completed by each participant to determine the influence of the program on participant's knowledge and skills. The form consisted of ten questions that used a four point Likert scale (strongly disagree, disagree, strongly agree, agree) and an open question at the end that asked for any additional comments that the participants would like to make.
All four program participants indicated in their survey responses that they agreed or strongly agreed that they had developed the knowledge and skills required to:
Only three of the four participants indicated in their survey form that they agreed or strongly agreed that they had developed the knowledge and skills required to use the online tool to map initiatives to the initiative characteristics for community transitioning and strengthening the government-community interface. It was the European consultant whose project focused on organizational change who considered that he had not developed the knowledge and skills to map his initiatives to the initiative characteristics. In the additional comments section of the survey form he provided the following explanation for why he considered he has not obtained the knowledge and skills: the online tool
is bounded by the context of complex problems in ecosystems of organizations, citizen initiatives, and governments. That makes it hard to use the tool for complex issues that arise within organizations.
Like the European consultant, the community leader and the state government employee did not use the online tool for its intended purpose of supporting a solution ecosystem to address a wicked problem. For the community leader's project of creating an ecologically sustainable food system, the community leader only mapped the initiatives that she was personally involved with to the online tool's initiative characteristics. Similarly, the state government employee whose project focussed on prisoner reintegration focused on increasing the systemic impact of his own single initiative.
Unlike the other participants, the local government employee's project did align with this intended purpose of the program and the online tool. The local government employee's project focused on using the tool to assist stakeholders in a council ward to take a solution ecosystem approach to address the wicked problem of food security.
After finishing the program, the local government participant's job role was amended to allow her to spend two days per week focusing on the food security project that she worked on during the program. She was also given the task of using what she has learned during the program to establish a Food Security Lab and to incorporate the online tool into the Lab's methodology.
Unfortunately this Lab never eventuated. The local government participant was the only person at the Council that had undertaken the program and developed the required knowledge and skills. Not long after completing the Complex Systems Leadership Program the local government participant left her position at the Council and started a new position that was not related to the proposed Lab. This inability to put the knowledge and skills developed into use in order to achieve impact supports Brinkerhoff's (2006a; 2006b: 22) suggestion that there are other factors in addition to training that can impede the ability of training to achieve valuable performance results.
Through the evaluation of the program's pilot and observations of program participants since the pilot's evaluation two factors were identified that impeded the ability of the Complex Systems Leadership Program to achieve valuable performance results: the risk of a program participant leaving their position when they are the only one in a solution ecosystem that is trained in the approach and participants not engaging with the initiatives and organizations within their solution ecosystem.
Wicked Lab has responded to these factors by developing a methodology for a Systemic Innovation Lab that includes the training of a core team of participants in Wicked Lab's Complex Systems Leadership Program and engaging with the initiatives and organizations of the solution ecosystem. Systemic Innovation Labs are a lab type that has been purposefully designed for addressing wicked problems (Zivkovic, 2018). They incorporate and synthesize all of the key features recommended for addressing wicked problems: they focus on addressing complex problems, take a place-based transition approach, enable coherent action by diverse actors, involve users as co-creators, support a networked governance approach and recognize government as an enabler of change (Zivkovic, 2018).
The need to incorporate the program and the tool into a Systemic Innovation Lab methodology further supports Moore's (2002) argument that a whole product solution is required when introducing discontinuous innovations. The Systemic Innovation Lab methodology supports Moore's (2002: 113) identified need for procedure components to be added to whole product solutions.
Wicked Lab has developed the FEMLAS process as a Systemic Innovation Lab methodology that incorporates its online tool and its Complex Systems Leadership Program (Zivkovic, 2018). FEMLAS is an acronym for the six stages of the process: Form, Explore, Map, Learn, Address and Share. At the Share stage of the process there is an iterative loop: after completing the Share stage, the four stages from Map to Share are repeated periodically.
The Form stage of the FEMLAS process includes the formation of a core team of stakeholders to oversee the strategy. During this stage the core team undertakes Unit 1 of the Complex Systems Leadership Program in order to understand the nature of wicked problems and why a complexity approach is required to address them. They also undertake a Systemic Innovation Lab Elective which provides the members of the core team with a thorough understanding of Systemic Innovation Labs and the FEMLAS process. Other tasks undertaken during the Form stage include the core team defining the solution ecosystem boundary, framing the solution ecosystem, undertaking the initial mapping of the initiatives and organizations in the solution ecosystem, and developing a briefing paper.
During the Explore stage of the FEMLAS process the members of the core team complete Units 2 and 3 of the Complex Systems Leadership Program. The key task during the Explore stage is for the core team to engage with representatives of initiatives in the solution ecosystem through key informant interviews and focus groups in order to identify characteristics in their initiatives that support systems change.
The main activities at the Map stage of the FEMLAS process include entering into the online tool the data that was collected during the Explore stage, and using the tool to create a transition card for the solution ecosystem. The transition card displays each of the identified initiatives in the solution ecosystem and highlights how each initiative is contributing towards systemic change: how each of the initiatives maps to the initiative characteristics for system transitioning and strengthening the interface between the solution ecosystem and government.
The Learn Stage of the FEMLAS process focuses on analyzing the transition card to determine where in the solution ecosystem there are gaps in effort for achieving systems change. These identified gaps are used to guide future action.
At the Address stage of the FEMLAS process representatives of the initiatives in the solution ecosystem are invited to participate in a large group intervention process to address the gaps identified in the Learn stage. During the large group intervention process, the participants identify if their organizations and initiatives can address the identified gaps in effort by amending their existing initiatives or creating new initiatives.
At the commencement of the FEMLAS Share stage the transition card is updated to incorporate any amended and new initiatives from the Address Stage. Next, the transition card is embedded on the Lab's website so that it can be viewed, discussed and shared by all of the stakeholders participating in the solution ecosystem.
Two examples of Systemic Innovation Labs that are using the FEMLAS process are the South West Food Community Food Security Lab and a Lab that is being progressed by the State Government in South Australia. While the South West Food Community is largely following the FEMLAS process only one member of its core team has undertaken the Complex Systems Leadership Program. In contrast, the State Government initiated Lab is at a very early stage in the Lab's development but 20 State Government staff members have already undertaken the Complex Systems Leadership Program.
The South West Food Community, a collaborative network in Western Australia, is using Wicked Lab's FEMLAS process to address the wicked problem of food insecurity. The boundary of the solution ecosystem for the South West Food Community consists of the South West region of Western Australia and the wicked problem of food security. The pillars of food security have been used to frame their solution ecosystem.
A graduate from the Complex Systems Leadership Program who is a researcher at Edith Cowan University is a member of the core team of the South West Food Community. This core team includes stakeholders working in nutrition, Aboriginal health, environmental health, food production, education, social work and town planning. The members of the core team come from a range of sectors including state government, local government, non-profit, business, community and university.
Wicked Lab's online tool was used by the South West Food Community core team to undertake an initial mapping of the initiatives and organizations in their solution ecosystem. The core team then developed a survey instrument, conducted key informant interviews and used Wicked Lab's online tool to undertake a thorough mapping of the South West Food Community solution ecosystem. A transition card was produced by the core team that lists the initiatives in the South West region of Western Australia that are focusing on food security and how each initiative is contributing towards systemic change. The gaps in current effort have been identified by the South West Food Community and a large group intervention will be held in November 2018 to address the identified gaps. The South West Food Community intends to embed its transition card into a purpose-built food security platform that includes a website and app.
Twenty staff from Natural Resource Adelaide and Mount Lofty Ranges, part of the South Australian Department for Environment and Water, have completed Wicked Lab's Complex Systems Leadership Program. The State Government has indicated that it is willing to fund and lead a Systemic Innovation Lab and has approached a local government partner that is interested in addressing a wicked problem in their geographical community. The local government partner in currently considering funding staff members to undertake the Complex Systems Leadership Program and the Lab elective.
The most challenging problems the world faces are wicked problems. By referring to Wicked Lab's Complex Systems Leadership Program, it has been argued in this paper that although complexity-informed approaches are recommended for addressing wicked problems, complexity informed training programs on their own are insufficient. This is because there are other factors in addition to training that impact on the performance of such programs.
In the case of the Complex Systems Leadership Program two factors were identified that prevented the training from being successfully implemented in practice. These were program participants leaving their positions and program participants not engaging with their solution ecosystem. To address these factors, this paper has suggested that complexity-informed training programs need to be embedded into a Lab methodology that has been purposefully designed to address wicked problems. To highlight how this approach can be undertaken in practice two Systemic Innovation Labs that are following the FEMLAS process have been described.
While these two case studies have been used to illuminate the paper's findings, neither of the case studies are yet to complete all of the stages of the FEMLAS process. Further research therefore needs to be undertaken once the case studies have completed the FEMLAS process to determine the actual impact of embedding the Complex Systems Leadership Program in a Systemic Innovation Lab methodology.
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