The world of NGOs – Simple, Complex or Complicated?
In 2007, David Snowden and Mary Boone published a paper in the Harvard Business Review, entitled “A Leader’s Framework for Decision-making”. In the article, they argue that business leaders need new ways of thinking about their jobs, and that “complexity science” offers useful tools in times of turbulence.
The key point made in the article is that leaders need to tailor their behaviour depending on the degree of complexity and predictability of the environment in which their organisation operates.
In “simple” environments, classic management theory applies, as there are few surprises. In such a relatively stable context, past experience and standardised work processes – “best practice” – are a sound basis for decision-making.
Also in “complicated” environments can leaders look for facts and “right answers”. Although complicated, the organisation’s environment is knowable; the only difference is that, unlike in simple contexts, there may be multiple right answers. This is the realm of experts and of “good practice” recommendations.
Most European NGOs probably operate in such a complicated context, and their leaders must therefore make sure that they have access to expert advice, and that their organisation exposes itself (and listens) to sources of conflicting advice.
Much of our work in Dóchas is based on the notion that the challenges our members face are the “known unknowns” of Rumsfeld’s famous poem, and that NGOs, through working groups and seminars, can share analysis and identify, document and apply elements of “good practice” in their work.
However, in recent years, it seems that some NGOs, or some aspects of NGO work have moved into an altogether less predictable environment. In such a “complex” (as opposed to merely complicated) organisational context, there is no immediate relationship between cause and effect, and the ecosystem is in constant flux. Breaking down the system into constituent parts may provide an illusion of predictability, but much like a rain forest is more than a collection of trees, the influences impacting on the organisation cannot be reduced to a series of simple trends. In such a situation, there are no experts, and there isn’t a clear recipe.
In such a complex environment, leaders must encourage interactive communication. Participating in Dóchas working groups, for instance, is now no longer a search for the missing silver bullet, or a mildly annoying additional work load: in complex environments it is essential that NGO staff – at all levels of the organisation – actively contribute to the search for identifiable patterns in the complexity. Dissent, debate and diversity are crucial if NGOs in complex environments are to survive.
The authors also identify a next level of complexity of context: “chaotic”. In chaotic environments the relationship between cause and effect is impossible to detect, and no manageable patterns emerge. Short of operations in places like Somalia, I doubt that many aspects of Irish NGO work takes place in such chaotic circumstances.
The key message, therefore, is that NGOs need to be keenly aware of the level of complexity, flux and turbulence in their working environment. Each level of complexity requires a different response and a different management style. Management methods, and organisational structures (and notably organisational cultures) that emerged in simple contexts may no longer be appropriate, and even counter-productive. And approaches to networking, staff training and shared learning may be based on the wrong type of learning needs.
So do ask yourself: is the context in which we work chaotic, complex or merely complicated? The answer to that question may be more important than it might look!
- Complexity, Adaptation and Results – Owen Barder
- How to recognise an effective NGO
- What makes a good NGO?
- Managing Change in NGO Networks
- An Ode to Effective NGOs