Systems Thinking and Complexity Theory
What does it have to do with evaluation and social change? Social change work is often situated in very complex systems, where there is little certainty on the cause and effect of relationships, and little agreement amongst stakeholders around how to address a problem. For example, international development work falls into the sphere of complexity – there is still a lot of uncertainty around how various programs will affect poverty, and there is much disagreement around what programs to design and implement to address issues of poverty.
When working in a complex system, it can be difficult to come up with clear theories of change, logic models for program design and evaluation, or measure the direct impact of a program. Therefore individuals and organizations working in these systems require special tools to effectively design and evaluate programs, business models, etc. I use systems thinking as defined by Derek and Laura Cabrera to be Distinctions, Systems, Relationships and Perspectives (DSRP) to develop meta-maps and deepen my evaluations by being meta-cognative. I also understand and use systems theory as described by Peter Senge and Donella Meadows to help understand the systems I work in, to identify tipping points or key areas of impact in the system, to design and evaluate a complex or adaptive program, and to communicate my findings in a way that captures the nuance of a complex system while clearly presenting program impacts to funders or stakeholders.