Socio Systemic Complexity Evaluation: Anticipating and appreciating the future in the present

Socio Systemic Complexity Evaluation: Anticipating and appreciating the future in the present


European School of Governance, intervention brief #220330-2 by Louis Klein

Keywords: appreciation, evaluation, systems change, metamorphic transformation, anticipation, future

Social development and change projects are increasingly limited by the project framework they are supposed to operate by. Project evaluation is not meeting the complexity of social ecosystems and the world they are manifesting in. Socio-systemic complexity evaluation overcomes the project management limitations to embark on a systems perspective that allows appreciating the dynamics of metamorphic transformation. It acknowledges essential purpose and masters the art of navigating by moving coordinates. In the end, a socio-systemic complexity evaluation allows us to anticipate and appreciate the future in the present.

The eco-logic of a garden may serve much better as a metaphor for the complexity of the world than the squareness of Lego bricks. Nevertheless, not only engineering projects are conceived of in the terms of linear causality but also all kinds of organisational change projects or community development programmes. A socio-systemic complexity evaluation facilitates appreciating systems and the complexity of social ecosystems. Apply a systems lens it needs to see with different eyes in order to deepen and widen our gaze. Appreciating systems allows realising value beyond deliverables, outputs, and outcomes. It is the bigger picture that counts.

The project evaluation paradox

For decades now project management has to wrestle with an evaluation paradox. Two-thirds of projects fail. They fail according to specification. They do not deliver according to budget, schedule, and specified deliverables. Certainly, there are a lot of projects which bluntly fail. However, many projects miss appreciating cross-benefits. The Sydney Opera is such a project failure, or the moon shot. Iconic projects are failures by the evaluation grid of project management. Evaluation against project plans fails to capture the value creation in the interconnectedness and interdependence of the real world. It misses the bigger picture.

The conspiracy of optimism

Especially in the public realm, we see an additional pitfall for project performance. Many projects which need to “sell” to a collective decision-maker are calculated based on a best-case performance scenario. Technically this scenario is within the statistical performance range, however, close to the extreme. Realising such a project in the real world will lead to evaluating and testifying project failure, while statistically, the project is still in the normal performance range. A good performance shall not be called a failure.

The eco-logic of gardens

Project Management is all about “getting things done”. It is born from an engineering and construction perspective. This is certainly helpful for the construction of infrastructures like bridges, railroads, and tunnels, or industrial products like cars, ships, and aeroplanes. This perspective already meets its limits if we think of software engineering. Hence, it is no coincidence that this industry challenged waterfall project management approaches with agile methods.
Project management is not fit for ecological complexity, e.g. for gardening. Though there are a lot of things which need to get done in a garden, the main aspect of gardening however is “letting things grow”. The gardener supports what wants to grow by its own virtues. Grass does not grow faster if we pull.

The social complexity

The popular scapegoats for project failure are “the human side” and “complexity”. A closer look through a systems lens may suggest addressing both as two aspects of the same phenomenon, namely social complexity. The US-American management educator, Noel Tichy, suggested that there are three relevant aspects guiding observation and research of social systems like organisations, enterprises, or projects: Technology, politics, and culture (TPC). Our education system prepares us mainly to acknowledge and recognise technological aspects of linear causality, like in engineering or accounting. The reciprocity of interests in politics and the paradigmatic dynamics of culture are rarely accounted for. Oftentimes politics and culture are addressed as externalities. The dominance of the technological perspective renders us two thirds blind. Hence, projects by default manoeuvre in the fog.

Social ecosystems

The systems lens improved addressing complexity in social systems. It facilitated a more holistic perspective on social ecosystems like projects, organisations, and communities. Eco-logic prevails. Though a lot of management and leadership literature still focusses on “getting things done”, governance and change in social ecosystems rather follow the eco-logic of “letting things grow”. It is a silent transformation.

Systems research

A systems lens allows us not only to see social complexity with different eyes but also to widen and deepen our gaze. It facilitates an understanding that grows from co-reflected lived experience embedded in epistemic humility. And it allows us to explore our understanding of understanding.

Accordingly, systems research, like systemic change, distinguishes between the ontological, first-order observation and the epistemological, second-order observation. The ontological, first-order observation explores the systemicity of the interconnectedness and interdependence of the world, its processes of emergence and dissolvence, and the leverage points of path dependency. The epistemological, second-order observation goes deep on mind shift and the malleable conditions of the possibility of our understanding and its dependency on paradigmatic propositions. It is a holistic approach.

Systemic Inquiry

For the exploration of social ecosystems systemic inquiry established, and still develops, a set of mixed methods. The mix embraces the recognition that shared understanding grows from co-reflected lived experience. Scientifically this translates into three levels of research engagement:

On the level of lived experience, this points to ethnographic and autoethnographic methods of participatory action research. This goes beyond shadowing and at times requires “going native” to immerse in the experience and the language to grow an embodied understanding of the field.

On the level of co-reflection, it is a set of qualitative interviews, focus groups, and reflection workshops which realises conditions for co-reflection and a mutually arising understanding.

In addition, systemic inquiry works with facilitating feedback, especially in the form of facilitating documents and facilitating presentations (e.g. summaries of the research and the growing understanding). Systemic inquiry becomes the mirror to the social ecosystem in focus.

Systemic Evaluation

Systemic evaluation can be conceived of as a form of systems research in social ecosystems in the form of systemic inquiry. It served to grow a shared understanding of the concerns in focus of a specific social ecosystem. However, the key insight of realising systemic evaluation was the recognition of its impact. If you observe a system, you cannot not intervene. It is the same realisation brought forward by the German theoretical physicist and pioneer of quantum mechanics, Werner Heisenberg as the uncertainty principle. Any observation inevitably alters the observed. This calls for mindfulness of any evaluation, not only systemic ones.

Essential purpose

Seen through a systems lens, we may acknowledge the purpose of any social ecosystem as the zenith in which it expresses its essence. This is far more than vision, mission, or guiding principles. It addresses the genuine intent prior to the intentions. We may, likewise seen through the systems lens, acknowledge purpose as the articulation of the balance between the being of the here-and-now, on the one hand, and the becoming of the there-and-then, on the other hand. The purpose is what centres and guides a social ecosystem in its being and becoming.

Systems Appreciation

Going from evaluation to appreciation indicates a systemic sensibility for the specific paradigmatic frameworks and the dynamic impact of any evaluation. In the form of a socio-systemic complexity evaluation, systems appreciation co-facilitates the self-understanding of a social ecosystem in focus and serves, so to speak, as a mirror to the mirror. Systems appreciation co-facilitates the exploration and articulation of the social ecosystem’s purpose and the co-creation of a language to express it. In this resonance the systems appreciation co-facilitates confidence and certitude for the navigation of the development of a social ecosystem in focus.

Specifying navigation tools

Navigating the development of social ecosystems requires a shared understanding of governance and change as well as a deeper connectedness with its purpose. The purpose is the zenith of any orientation and provides direction. The navigation can be supported by an idiosyncratic, or shall we say tailor-made, navigation tool, which we call honouring the research partnership with the Tamkeen Community Foundation for Human Development an astrolabe.

As any systemic inquiry starts from the questions which are present in the respective social ecosystem, the astrolabe’s moving coordinates are constituted by the various questions which are relevant to the social ecosystem in focus. The questions will change over time, hence, the moving coordinates. Yet, they will allow a social ecosystem to understand its own course following the serendipity of currents, confluences, and openings. It is a never-ending journey of realising and manifesting the social ecosystem’s purpose over and over again.

Measuring silent transformation

The transformation and development of social ecosystems follow the eco-logic of a silent transformation. Today’s point of arrival will only be tomorrow’s point of departure. Nevertheless, there will be stories of manifestations serving as snapshots of a metamorphic transformation. Yet, the process of a metamorphic transformation is an expression of its purpose. A socio-systemic complexity evaluation allows us to anticipate and appreciate the future in the present.


For more experiences see: Appreciating Socio-Systemic Complexity Evaluation