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…

Related blog posts:

Through the blissful darkness of ignorance, with concepts-lights at my side

Ignorance is bliss

So they say, and truly I can relate to this saying. Knowing all the details of sordid stories, knowing all the issues that await us when tackling a problem is not always the best guarantee for action. Sometimes it causes the paralysis of fear or concern…

Ignorance is also the mother of curiosity, which gives the greatest push towards learning. So it’s not all that bad to ignore a few things…

The Johari window (from Peter Dorrington's article about "unknown unknowns and risk")

The Johari window (from Peter Dorrington’s article about “unknown unknowns and risk”)

…that is, if you know that you ignore them, and want to do something about them. In the proverbial Johari window, there are a few things that caution tells us we don’t know – the real key to learning evoked above.

But there are also things we don’t know that we don’t know and those are the things that through experimentation, individual and social learning, we will hopefully find out that we don’t know. It’s that little extra information that gives us the depth of details we were not yet aware of – which makes also the difference between the caution of an experienced person and the over-confidence of a lay person.

There are gazillions of things that I do not know of course, but there are also a few concepts that are currently my guiding lights in my own learning experience around the fascinating ‘knowledge realm’ and moving around my own Johari window – hoping I will never end up in a real bad case of amnesia 😉

A few concepts as lights in the knowledge realm

What follows here is a rather mixed bag but these concepts definitely relate to one another and sometimes originate from the same authors or sources…

Knowledge work

To start, ‘knowledge work’ is the mother of all other concepts here, as it relates to the overall umbrella of concepts that relate to learning, knowledge management and communication (in its engaging side, not its messaging tradition – see the happy families of engagement). Knowledge work is quite vague but simultaneously it stresses the importance of knowledge in all its relations. Knowledge work is not (just) about information, it’s not just about management (like some takes on KM), it’s not just about learning, it’s about all these areas of work that contribute to this ‘knowledge era’ we are in, where knowledge, its development, sharing, exploitation and ongoing transformation are seen as assets to give us an edge. This, by the way, is just an observation, not necessarily my opinion: I think the next frontier will be about harnessing the power of feelings and intuition, not just cognition.

Working out loud

I came across this concept only a few months ago in John Stepper’s post ‘Working out loud: your personal content strategy‘ and it has taken my mental world by storm. Working out loud is quite simple: journalling your work and sharing it – but the three words contain a lot of challenges and opportunities of (agile) knowledge management and learning. The simplicity of this concept and its appeal to working in a smarter way are nothing short of genius for us all knowledge workers, seeking ways to get our perspective acknowledged and valued. Working out loud also resonates with my blogging practice and all the great things it has given me – which are echoed and amplified in another author’s blogging experience (see which author in the para below).

Personal knowledge management

This topic is closely related to the former. Working out loud fuels personal knowledge management. But personal knowledge management (PKM) goes also into the personal use of information management: it’s not just about journaling but also about organising our knowledge and learning work. I first became acquainted with this concept on Harold Jarche’s blog.

Personal knowledge management or PKM (credits: Jane Hart)

Personal knowledge management or PKM (credits: Jane Hart)

What I like about this concept is that it is about using structure to free yourself from structure: Personal structure and discipline to use and learn from social networks to subvert hierarchies and other structures imposed from outside. And even if you work for an organisation, PKM is something that your firm should be paying attention to, as a foundation to improve organisational KM and learning… No organisation can hope to thrive at ‘organisational learning’ if its individual employees do not see the value of applying it to their personal needs and aspirations. Long live the age of individualism where it reinforces collective dynamics…

Retrospective and inquisitive coherence

This is a lesser concept perhaps but it is relevant to think about learning and what we think about when looking back at the things we didn’t know before. Analysing a complex chain of events and how they led to a certain result -ex-post- makes so much sense all of a sudden: it is retrospectively coherent. Yet, when first confronted with a complex issue at hand, we often have no idea about the way forward. What is useful here is first and foremost to keep some modesty as to what we know or not; it’s also about embracing complexity to look at the bigger picture – the best bet to pave the ways toward inquisitive (forward-looking) coherence. Retrospective coherence was, I believe, developed by the Welshman Dave Snowden.

Positive deviants

Positive deviance was brought to my knowledge via the excellent IKM-Emergent project (closed now) and the work around disruption of systems. Positive deviants are people who follow a successful – albeit uncommon – behaviour, with usually the result of disrupting the foundations of the environment which they challenge with their atypical approach. In knowledge work, where so much relates to behaviour change, incentives and the systemic dynamics that plays around knowledge initiatives (i.e. the enabling or disabling environment and organisation or set of organisations involved), positive deviance is an enlightening concept to explore new pathways of change through the actions of single agents. Local agents affecting the global system: a true characteristic of a complex adaptive system, which will be one of the objects of my next blog post.

Disruptive technology

Not only people (individual positive deviants) can have a profound ‘change’ effect, technology can also play that role. And indeed social media, smartphones, the internet generally and soon cyborg-type implants and other smart devices are or will be totally transforming our lives. But let’s park the sci-fi fantasy for now and focus on the here and now of. When cynics doubt about the value of social media without having really tried them out, it strikes me that this is a typical Johari window example of not knowing what you don’t know, or perhaps not knowing what you might need next. Ditto with a smartphone: until you have it, you cannot imagine what it can do for you. And to you.  We live in a highly techno-driven world of perpetual evolution. Understanding technology is essential: it allows us to understand how it could give new possibilities for our behaviour, but also to know  how we might or should keep control over that technology. A fine balance… and an illustration of how important this concept of disruptive technology has become.

Cynefin framework

Another invention of Dave Snowden, the Cynefin framework is a five-slot framework to understand in what kind of environment we are – or are facing an issue. It could be either simple, complicated, complex, chaotic or unordered.

The Cynefin Framework - where complexity is but one possibility

The Cynefin Framework – where complexity is but one possibility

This framework has been referred to many times and for good reasons, as it is quite intuitive and has been declined in various renditions. Like any framework it doesn’t hold all the truth and it has been criticised in the past, but this framework makes us think about the interactions and types of learning and action approaches best suited to deal with any issue. I also my reservations about the framework but find it a fascinating tool to keep thinking about complexity in a rather simple way but with wide-reaching and sometimes very complex implications.

Empowered listener

We are part of various online and offline communities. Increasingly so. And we cannot invest as much time as we would like in being active in each of them. But we nonetheless choose to be present in those communities. We decide actively what we are listening to because we think we might gain from it. So we all are lurkers in some communities, or as I recently suggested, ’empowered listeners’. And I believe this is not a trend that will wane all too quickly.


This is the last but not the least on this list, as it led me to rebaptise my blog ‘Agile KM for me and you’. Jennifer Sertl recently shared with me her definition of what agility means (see image above). In reaction, Dave Snowden (him again) recently put some words of caution to the agile crowd to avoid the past mistakes of the KM clique – and most likely rightly so. However I like the emphasis of this approach towards a more dynamic approach to learning and knowledge work, which is not just about innovation or just about managing assets or solving today’s problems. It reflects the dynamism of the world we live in and the added imperative to think and act increasingly proactively and reflexively.

With such guiding lights, I surely should be able to quickly highlight many other areas of my own ignorance. Phew! To learning there is really no end – but learning also is bliss…

Related blog posts: