The world of NGOs – Simple, Complex or Complicated?

23/06/2011 at 6:28 am 1 comment

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!

Further reading:


Entry filed under: NGOs. Tags: , , , , , , , .

Irish Aid consults with Dóchas members on Busan Forum on Aid Effectiveness Reforming the EU’s Agricultural Policy

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Clare  |  03/07/2011 at 5:34 pm

    Really enjoyed this post. I think NGOs need to exploit the best of management theory, business ideals and organizational development in order to survive and thrive in an increasingly competitive market. Anything that moves NGOs towards increased impact and efficiency is a positive, in my view. Great post. Greetings from Kolkata. Clare.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Trackback this post  |  Subscribe to the comments via RSS Feed

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 210 other followers


Dóchas on Twitter

The World's Best News - images

Meet "Chocolate Mamas", producers of chocolate in #Tanzania, creating Tanzanian jobs. 
While #cocoa is grown in West Africa and Asia,
most #chocolate (the finished product) is made in Europe or the USA.

Meet Jaki Kweka, who is trying to change that. By creating protected areas and national parks and by limiting the spread of soy bean cultivation, Brazil has managed to drastically reduce the amount of rain forest being cleared. Costa Rica, #Afghanistan, China, #India and Albania are all embracing renewable energy sources. Social change needs empowered citizens, and empowered citizens need occasional encouragement.

Great to hear that we're not the only ones who believe in the power of positive news! 50,000 rice farmers in #IvoryCoast are now working with better seeds, improving food security in the West African country.

As a result, harvests have increased.

Source: World Bank, photo: Jbdodane / CC BY Sub-Saharan Africa’s first light rail system starts operations. 
As Ethiopians celebrate their New Year, they also prepare to mark the beginning of operations of a tram system in the #Ethiopian capital #AddisAbaba. 
Read more: Going Mobile in #Malawi”. A mobile phone information service established last year to provide timely information to rural poor farmers in a southern African country, has been used nearly half a million times since its launch.

Established in Malawi by Gorta-Self Help Africa last year, the ‘321’ voice-activated service provides subscribers to the country’s largest mobile phone network with farm information and advice that they can access at the push of a button. And it’s all free. Read more at 10,000 copies of "The World's Best News" were distributed all over #ireland today!

See how The Irish Times described our newspaper, and click the link to read all the articles online! See how The Irish Times described our newspaper, and click the link to read all the articles online!

Visitors Map


Dóchas Photos



More Photos


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 210 other followers

%d bloggers like this: