Complexity in multi-stakeholder processes – how to manage, facilitate or navigate around it?


After almost five weeks without any blogging, I’m definitely coming to terms with the blank page/blank mind syndrome. A very useful experience – this drought of ideas – as it just reveals how daily mental discipline and a conscious effort of connecting thoughts is the ignition I need to let inspiration flow. Holiday had been particularly effective at unwinding me entirely this year I guess…

Complexity (Credits - Michael Heiss / FlickR)

Complexity (Credits – Michael Heiss / FlickR)

As I started working again, I facilitated a training workshop for facilitators of multi-stakeholder processes in a project named ‘EAU4Food‘. This workshop had a strong connection with complexity. Global development is a highly complex field – as recently and brilliantly demonstrated by Owen Barder in this presentation. Within this field, any multi-stakeholder process deals with a high(er) degree of complexity, given the amount of actors (institutional and individual) involved in an ‘n-gagement‘ process and the impossibility to predict the outcomes of their interaction. The training workshop put the emphasis on this aspect as a starting ‘mindset’ to better prepare the facilitators for their job. I gave the presentation below to set the tone.

After the workshop, in the evaluation, one of the participants mentioned that the session on complexity “added to the complexity”. Perhaps he meant the perplexity (his)… and I can understand that. We, human beings, are perhaps not well wired to deal with complexity, as we tend to put everything in a neat box that isn’t connected with other boxes, because it makes it simpler to comprehend – but not more truthful. We love to zoom in on specific aspects rather than dealing with wide, contextualised, integrated sets of issues. Our repulsion for complex and contextual solutions is what leads us to be so keen on ‘silver bullets’ and blanket solutions that we think will be universally helpful And yet, as with silver bullets, we could not be more ill-informed than to seek to avoid and ignore complexity.

There are however a few things we can try…

Managing complexity

After ignoring complexity, this is the worst strategy we can adopt. The very lesson of complexity is that we cannot manage it. Command and control, certainty of planning and of the outcomes we desire simply do not work in complex environments such as multi-stakeholder processes. The first lesson is thus to shed our old power-clinging tendencies and preferences and to accept that, while we can manage projects, deadlines, outputs etc. – how they relate to and interact with other stakeholders in the process is far from being manageable. This point, and many other excellent ones have been highlighted in this wonderful presentation which I came across in this blog post by Harold Jarche.

Perhaps we would therefore be better advised to focus on…

Facilitating complexity

This is essentially what the facilitators of EAU4Food learning and practice alliances (and the local communities of practice) are supposed to do. Managing emphasises control and certainty. Facilitating shifts focus towards the orchestration of other actors – in an attempt to let them find their ‘space and place’ in the process, and perhaps to make them coalesce around a common agenda or understanding of the priorities. A lot of the workshop sessions focused on this, from meetings (the iconic and emerging part of facilitating multi-stakeholder processes) to the wider engagement process. Yet facilitating can take various courses. Some of them are dangerously close to managing complexity. The danger of ‘facipulation’ is that, if well done, that sort of facilitation can give the illusion of being participatory but in reality is self-serving and just another way of getting endorsement for pre-conceived ideas. To avoid this, a further step is to seek…

Navigating around ‘co-mplexity’

The presentation above stresses the ideal of embracing the group of stakeholders as a ‘complex adaptive system’, where each part of the network becomes an essential node in a grid and plays an essential role of connector and amplifier that improves the feedback loops inherent to such complex processes.

So how to navigate complexity?

First of all, by creating conditions to effectively co-create that complexity. For any multi-stakeholder process, the essence of its success (and possible survival beyond the funded initiative that saw to its birth) is the genuine authenticity of co-creation processes. If the agenda is set together, activities decided collectively and adapted according to the challenges and opportunities that the whole set of stakeholders have identified, then complexity becomes an ally that leads the way to ‘highlighting new paths’ that were not previously possible or visible. A true case of co-mplexity, a joint act of navigation around complexity and of developing a pathway together.

Secondly, and this is where agile KM comes into play, the complexity of the process will be all the easier to navigate depending on the reflexivity of the group: the more the group focuses on joint reflection, social learning and ensuing collective action, the more productive and the richer the experience will be for all.

Finally, navigating around complexity does not mean that the whole process is about complexity. There are tasks and areas that are not complex and should not become more complex than they have to be. It is the responsibility of the process facilitator to adapt to circumstances and identify what needs management, what needs facilitation, what needs co-creation.

The position of multi-stakeholder process facilitator is still relatively new and the rising complexity and the trend of acknowledging it also are in their infancy, so one can be hopeful that these multi-stakeholder process facilitators are only the exploring navigators of a world to be. The gems of their voyages will tell us more about the mysterious lands of complexity…

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