Wilder Research Week: Brian Pittman on Complex Systems

Hello, I am Brian Pittman, a Research Associate at Wilder Research. Our work involves many different topics, scopes, and stakeholders, but an increasing proportion of our projects deal with complexity. Therefore, we work to learn and use the principles and practices of complex systems in our work. This post includes a brief primer of the concepts, but it is not intended to be a thorough explanation of complex systems theory.

Hot Tip: Identifying complexity.

First, it is important to understand when you are dealing with a complex system. The three primary characteristics of complex systems are:

  • Openness. Complex systems include many inter-related and interacting entities (including other systems) that are scalable (agent affects the system and system affects agent) and co-evolving.
  • Diversity. Complex systems have diverse and varying types of entities or agents.
  • Uncertainty. Unpredictable may, and often do, occur.

These characteristics help to define systems capable of emergence. Now you may be recognizing that some of your projects are dealing with complex systems, or even the projects themselves are complex systems! Next, let’s look at some of the considerations for engaging complex systems.

Hot Tip: Key considerations.

The following are the mechanisms for understanding and influencing complex systems:

  • Connections (aka relationships) represent exchanges between agents and determine the cohesiveness of the system.
  • Perspectives (aka differences) refer to the diversity of agents within the system and provide the “energy” the system needs to be dynamic.
  • Boundaries (aka containers) are what define the scope of the system and help to hold its components together in a pattern.

Lessons learned:

Three lessons we have learned about working with complex systems include:

  • Ask a different kind of evaluation question. First, what is the system and what are its patterns? The mechanisms can help answer. Next, what patterns are wanted or needed? Third, how do we get there? Manipulate the mechanisms. Ask: Are we doing the right thing? Instead of: Are we doing things right?
  • Quick and useful feedback. The evaluation questions are not answered just at the end of a project, they are ongoing explorations of a system that is always adapting and changing.
  • Adapt as needed. Complex systems are adaptive, so don’t be afraid to adapt your evaluation methods, tools, or plans based on your observations and understandings of the system.

Rad Resources:  

  • Developmental Evaluation: Applying Complexity Concepts to Enhance Innovation and Use. (2010) Michael Patton. (Evaluation).
  • Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed. (2007). Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman, and Michael Patton. (Social change)
  • Evaluating Systems Change: A Planning Guide. April 2010. Margaret B. Hargreaves. (Evaluation)

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating with our colleagues from Wilder Research this week. Wilder is a leading research and evaluation firm based in St. Paul, MN, a twin city for AEA’s Annual Conference, Evaluation 2012. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

2 thoughts on “Wilder Research Week: Brian Pittman on Complex Systems”

  1. Katya Petrochenkov

    Very interesting! Can you recommend any good sources on complex systems theory? Do the sources listed above provide a good background?

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