ODI paper on planning and strategy development in complex situations

ODI just published a great paper by Richard Hummelbrunner and Harry Jones titled “A guide for planning and strategy development in the face of complexity.” It is a great piece that takes  the discussion around harnessing complexity for more effective development to a much more concrete, practicable and practitioner friendly level.

In the relatively short (12 pages) and easy to read paper, Hummelbrunner and Jones introduce complexity, name the biggest challenges in the face of complexity, propose three core principles to face them, and even showcase a number of tools that can be applied in these situations.

While recognizing that there are a number of ways to frame complexity, Hummelbrunner and Jones propose one that is very easily accessible and graspable from a field reality, as it is based on the three major challenges faced by practitioners:

  • the level of uncertainty involved
  • the extent of agreement about project goals or ways to achieve them, and
  • the extent to which knowledge and capacities are distributed.

Subsequently, they propose three tasks to follow when assessing a situation: assess the level of uncertainty, assess the level of agreement, and assess the distribution of knowledge and capacities. For each of the steps, they describe what we have to look for and why it is relevant for our work.

Based on the challenges, Hummelbrunner and Jones propose three core principles to follow when planning and strategizing in the face of complexity:

  • move from static to dynamic planning
  • move from prescriptive to flexible planning modes, and
  • move from comprehensive to diversified planning.

 Some great statements in this regard:

The key function of plans is not to elaborate details of a situation expected in the future, but to provide a basis and guide for decision-making throughout the course of the intervention.

The task for a team responsible for planning is to provide the necessary guidance and leadership, communicating a vision of change around which responses can emerge.

In general terms, planning should be participatory, involving the key partners of the respective cooperation system and taking into account the main perspectives from which the intervention can be framed. It should be based on an initial analysis of the main influencing factors and contextual conditions. But a large part of the information needed for implementation is generated along the way, making it essential that plans are more adaptive to unfolding realities.

After detailing out the three core principles, the two authors propose a number of “appropriate approaches” that can be used to plan in complex settings and even provide an example of complex planning with logical frameworks (who would have thought this possible – but I guess we have to stick to the logframe as long as it is a requirement of many donors).

Here are the approaches they propose:

  • Scenario technique
  • Conditional planning
  • Milestone planning
  • Assumption-based planning
  • Boundary planning
  • Adaptive strategy development
  • Outcome mapping

Some of these are described in a book called “Systems Concepts in Action: A Practitioner’s Toolkit” Hummelbrunner authored together with Bob Williams (check out our reading list on systemic-insight.com).

All in all, a great paper and a valuable contribution to advancing complexity sensitive development work.

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