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Outcome Mapping Practitioner Guide

Systems thinking and complexity theory in Outcome Mapping

Outcome Mapping was not explicit developed using systems thinking or complexity theory but there are clear parallels that make OM a compatible approach.

Author: Terry Smutylo

Published: Saturday 16 August 2014

Interesting ideas and tools are emerging in current discussions of 'systems' and 'complexity', especially in relation to planning, monitoring and evaluating.  One idea is that 'complex' situations are those where there are uncertainities and / or differing opinions concerning a problem and what to do about it.  Williams & Hummelbrunner in their book Systems Concepts in Action: A Practitioner's Toolkit (2010) offer a set of concepts to help deal with complex situations: a) understanding and working with the differing perspectives of stakeholders; b) settting the boundaries of the situation to clarify whose actions and what circumstances are included and exluded; and c) focussing on the interrelations among the stakeholders.  

While OM does not explicitly apply these three concepts, this line of thinking surfaces in OM in different ways:  

For instance, the concept of boundaries shows up as follows: 

  • A vision statement sets out the area of concern putting the 'problem' in its context, defining which stakeholders and influential factors are included in the stiaution to be addressed by the intervention. 
  • In recognizing an intervention's limited sphere of influence, OM defines which parts within the 'area of concern' it intends to influence.
  • when we select 'boundary partners', we include certain actors and exclude others. 
  • in designing or implementing 'E' strategies in a straegy map, we recognize whose spheres of influence our boundary partners operate within the possibility of influencing some of our partners' context. 
  • The concept of interrelations show up in OM when we defien and track outcomse as patterns of behaviour and interactions among stakeholders.

The concept of interrelations shows up in OM when we define and track outcomes as patterns of behaviour and interactions among stakeholders.  

We take into account the perspectives of specific actors when setting 'outcome challenges' and in considering how to influence them, and how to influence those who influence them.  These put an intervention in touch with the motivation, mandates, and values of those it seeks to influence.  

With OM we do not methodologically surface and engage with the perspectives of all the actors. Instead, we recognize that whoever is apllying OM is applying it from a particular perspective.  There is no objective or bird's eye point of virew in OM.  However, ideally, the actor using OM will draw on the participation of other actors to build a model which aggregates their collective knowledge to create a contextually grounded picture of their roles, interrelationships, motivations, and so on.  While the resulting logic model explicitly represetns teh situation from teh perspective of one actor, it can include and resonate with the perspectives of other actors as well. 

The actor-centered approach of OM brings to light an issue related to how systems and complexity concepts are sometimes applied.  We have defined a complex situation as one where there is uncertainty due to lack of knowledge and / or consensus among stakeholders.  If complexity depends on what the stakeholders know and agree on, then any situation has the potential to be seen as simple or coplex, depending which stakeholders are included and what they know and agree on.  Thus, uncertainty and complexity, depend on the boundaries of the situation and how the actors perceive it.  How people understand and relate to a situation is influenced by an unknowable range of possible factors including previous experience, stake held, organizational mandate, expertise, ideology, values, contracts, commitments, priorities and so on.  Some actors may consider the situation to be complex while others see it as simple.  As actors engage with or learn about a situation, and its stakeholder the perceived uncertainties may expand or diminish and the categorization as simple or complex, could change.  

So if designers or implementers of an intervention think they fully understand a situation and know exactly what to do and how to go about it, then the situation is probably not perceived as complex.  Being unaware of the level of knowledge or degree of agreement among other stakeholders, the intervention team may see the situation as fairly simple - a matter of implementing a well-defined set of activities.  So if a situation is rife with uncertainties which the intervention does not perceive or take into acount, is it simple or complex? Tehre is not external, objective standpoint from which such categorization can be made.  An intervention team or any other perceiver will characterize a stiuation based on its necessarily limited knowledge and its particular perspective and intentions.  in other words, simplicity can always be found within greater complexity.  

Related Practitioner Guide sections:

Latin America & Carribean Sub-Saharan Africa North Africa & Middle East South Asia South East Asia & Pacific Far-East Asia Eastern Europe & CIS (ex USSR) Western Europe North America & Canada Australasia