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Community Contribution

To What Extent Does CLA Improve Development Outcomes? Reflections on Systems Thinking and Wicked Problems

Apr 20, 2016
Kristin Lindell

After a recent Systems Thinking workshop at the State Department, I came home to find one of my favorite necklaces tangled into an impossible metal ball. Every time I tried to loosen one piece of the chain, the knot only seemed to tighten. Then, I made the connection: I realized I held a literal wicked problem in my hands.

As I stood, fingers haphazardly pulling at pieces of metal chain, I began to consider Systems Thinking, wicked problems, and how they relate to the work we’re doing on the USAID LEARN contract. Wicked problems (as we can imagine given their name) do not have straightforward solutions. In fact, trying to tackle them through traditional mechanisms may worsen the situation or cause unintended negative consequences. Just like my necklace, loosening one side of the knot only to made the other side more difficult to pull apart.

In the international development space, many policy makers and practitioners think about wicked problems, like poverty or environmental degradation, on a daily basis. A Systems Thinking approach provides an alternative framework for conceptualizing the root causes of these problems. The State Department session’s presenters, Drs. Laura and Derek Cabrera, said that Systems Thinking helps us to:

  • Understand patterns and anticipate future challenges
  • Conceptualize underlying structures that support these patterns
  • Identify existing mental models, or the way we see the world, to challenge existing assumptions and formulate innovative solutions

In particular, if we start to challenge our own mental models, we might realize that the way we see the world does not reflect reality. Since Systems Thinking requires us to take a step back and identify our thinking patterns, we can truly assess cause and effect relationships between a problem and its drivers.  In turn, this framework can help cause systemic change--and in theory, untangle my necklace.

In the second half of the workshop, Dr. Cabrera asked the audience to consider how Systems Thinking can be applied to our current jobs. As a new member of the Monitoring, Evaluation, Research and Learning (MERL) team on the USAID LEARN contract, my mind immediately made a connection to designing evaluation questions that address what we’d ultimately like to know: Does collaborating, learning and adapting (CLA) lead to better development outcomes? Through a Systems Thinking lens, some of the evaluation questions I have include: 

  • Who are the key stakeholders in CLA and how does their behavior influence its adoption?
  • How do grassroots level stakeholders view CLA in terms of its effectiveness on development?
  • What barriers or gaps exist in CLA adoption and how can these be addressed?
  • What role does CLA play in the broader system that makes better development possible?

In international development, we know we’re dealing with problems so complex they’ve been deemed “wicked”. In my mind, though, just because an outcome is difficult to measure doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be measured. Let’s leverage approaches like Systems Thinking to help us understand more about CLA’s impact on these wicked problems.