How can a complexity lens help with adaptation?

“You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.” 
― Bruce Lee

At Dialectiq, we believe finding politically feasible solutions involve adapting to changing power dynamics and shifting interests. As a peacebuilding practitioner reflecting on the use of adaptation to build politically feasible solutions, I kept coming back to the question: what are we supposed to be adapting to? Beyond managing the risks of programme delivery, were my adpative strategies helping to reshape prevailing power dynamics or transform competing interests?

According to the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), adaptive development involves understanding the differing interests and capacity of individuals or groups to negotiate and devise their own legitimate institutions[1]. To achieve this ODI recommends working in an adaptive entrepreneurial way, where programmes place ‘small bets’ on different solutions and learn quickly from mistakes[2]. Whilst tools, such as PDIA[3], have been created to help practitioners develop an experimental, entrepreneurial approach, there is still a lack of advice on where to start placing these ‘small bets’[4].

Dialectiq’s platform has been devised to help organisations adopt an adaptive development approach in three ways. Firstly, it helps practitioners identify entry points for engaging relevant stakeholders to work with (where to place the ‘small bets’). Secondly it helps practitioners assess the likelihood of a specific strategy building politically feasible solutions (chances of the ‘small bet’ paying off). Thirdly it helps practitioners monitor changes in power dynamics over time as the context evolves. Our work to date has supported practitioners, policymakers, and local actors in contexts and on issues as complex as political reconciliation in Palestine, governance reform in Pakistan, and mapping actors for change in Iraq.

Identifying entry points for partnerships

The Dialectiq approach begins to identify entry points by pinpointing actors that have an interest in the programme outcomes and have the power to support a transformative process. Following on from the realities of finding politically feasible solutions, users were able to visually explore the interests of each stakeholder, their propensity for change, and their power along different categories (see our previous blog post on unravelling complexity).

Figure 1 below shows how Dialectiq visualises stakeholders’ interests and attitudes, and power. Each circle represents a stakeholder: their position on the grid reflects their interests in the development/peace outcome on the x-axis (from -5 to +5) and their propensity to change on the y-axis (1 (low) to 5 (high)). The size of the circle depicts their aggregate power, and can also be reformulated to depict power by category i.e. (economic, political, social, information, coercive).

Figure 1: Visualising interests/attitude & power


Please note this visual is a hypothetical example.

Through the visuals, users were able to start identifying actors with a shared interest in the programme objectives (circles towards the right), understand the factors affecting each stakeholder’s interests as well as highlight those whose interests could be shifted as the context changes (circles towards top left).

The power analysis meant users were able to examine how each actor might affect change and which ones might combine to establish and strengthen change coalitions. For example, a stakeholder with high levels of economic power but limited political or social power could strengthen a coalition by cooperating with a stakeholder with high levels of political or social power. The capacity to analyse each stakeholder’s different forms of power also allows users to identify potential partners that could strengthen the legitimacy of the coalition.

Assessing the probability of finding politically feasible solutions

Through analysis of relationships, the Dialectiq framework also allows assessment of the probability of finding political solutions. Users are able to visually explore the effect relationships of different stakeholders are having on programme outcomes, and the underlying factors that build or undermine trust between them (see blog on unravelling complexity). Figure 2 below shows how Dialectiq visualises this information. The number values assigned to each relationship signify their effect on the programme outcomes ranging from +35 (strong positive effect) to -35 (strong negative effect).

Figure 2: Visualisation of relationships


Please note this visual is for illustrative purposes only.

Users can then begin to prioritise which relationships to target to initiate change, and through the analysis also assess the probability of being able to transform them. For example if a relationship can be significantly impacted by simply improving the flow of information or changes in contractual agreements then the probability of success could be considered high. If however conflicting values or conflicting political interests negatively affect a relationship then the probability of transforming that relationship may be lower and may require more astute and sensitive interventions. At the same time, the stakeholder analysis (Figure 1) allows users to identify which stakeholders have the power to facilitate a transformation. For example, if a relationship is affected by conflicting economic interests but common cultural values exist, the tool can help identify which other actors have the social and economic power to help transform this relationship.

Experimenting and learning

The online function of Dialectiq means users are able to test and assess the risks of specific strategies before beginning interventions. Data can be saved at a particular point in time and can be continually updated. This allows users to develop a dynamic form of analysis where users can continually learn how their interventions are affecting change or how the context is changing. Figure 3 below shows Dialectiq’s iterative process of strategy design, on-going reflection, validation and reconfiguration of existing strategies.


As Dialectiq continues helping organisations to adapt, we are discovering more and more about the challenges of building politically feasible solutions. We are learning how different forms of power can contest existing power dynamics, how different interests can be swayed, or how examining relationships can help understand the complexities of building solutions. Therefore as Dialectiq develops we look forward to continuing this journey and supporting efforts to build peace and sustainable development.

Figure 3: Dialectiq’s iterative process of diagnosing, experimenting and testing

Diagrams 050418_1700HRES_FIGURE 3


[1] Wild, et al., 2015, Adapting development: improving services to the poor, Overseas Development Institute

[2] Adapting development: improving services to the poor, 2015, Wild, et al. Overseas Development Institute

[3] Andrews, M., Pritchett, L. & Woolcock. M. (2012). Escaping Capability Traps through Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA). CGD Working Paper 299. Washington, D.C.: Center for Global Development.

[4] Tim Kelsall ,2016, Thinking and working with political settlements, Overseas Development Institute