Good reading - Bryan Hopkins

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Some interesting reads

I spend a lot of my time reading and studying, seeking to understand how the universe works. I am not sure how much progress I am making on this, but I find the process of trying fascinating, so thought I would share some suggestions about books that I have read that I have found useful.

Humanitarian and development issues

"Aid on the edge of chaos" by Ben Ramalingam
A very readable book which looks at how complexity theory provides some very important lessons regarding aid.

Complexity theory looks at the tension between top-down, centrally-driven policies and practice (most aid programmes) and local implementation drawing on relevant but potentially limited perspectives. Somewhere in the middle of the two lies the 'edge of chaos', where the benefits of both can combine to enable sustainable solutions.

Another valuable book linking the ideas of complexity theory with development practice. It provides an explanation about what complexity means and then uses these ideas to suggest alternative strategies for poverty reduction, promoting democracy, increasing food security and peace building.

As with most thinkers in the systems fold, he discusses at length the weaknesses in the traditional, reductionist, linear cause and effect approach that dominates development practice.

This is quite an academic tome produced by the United Nations University Press, which looks at the experience of UN peacekeeping operations in various countries, including Timor Leste, Ghana, Argentina and Kosovo, amongst others. It describes why the peacekeeping operations were introduced and then looks at what unexpected consequences were. As such it touches on complexity theory and non-linear causality, and so provides an excellent resource for linking humanitarian issues with systems thinking.

"Complex emergencies" by David Keen
Keen's book is a fascinating contribution to the 'greed or grievance' debate on the causes of civil war. One of his central arguments is that violence has a function, in that it brings certain benefits (for example financial or psychological) to some protagonists, and that this is often overlooked in external interventions. This can result in us looking at civil war as being some sort of aberration from a normal peaceful state, whereas in fact violence is normal and peace the aberration.

People with a systems perspective will find much of interest in this book.
Looking at systems thinking

"Developmental evaluation" by Michael Quinn Patton
This book expertly explains how to integrate evaluation into implementation rather than do it as some afterthought. Patton discusses the characteristics of complex adaptive systems as relevant to evaluation practice, for example the significance of nonlinearity, emergence, adaptation, uncertainty and dynamic change. He also considers how much evaluation thinking is based on the assumption that the situation of interest is 'simple', in that there is certainty about goals, agreement on methods and clarity about cause and effect, whereas most evaluations examine situations that cannot be described in this way.

Overall, he recommends integrating both top-down and bottom-up approaches, and using the mixture that appears in the middle as a basis for making changes to programme implementation.

"Riding the waves of change" by Gareth Morgan
Morgan's 1988 book now appears somewhat prescient, in its call for managers to be able to think about what the future might bring and what the implications of this would be. It says that managers need to be able to take a more holistic view about the world in which they work, anticipating change and adopting a mindset that sees innovation as desirable and essential rather than as a threat.

Seddon's book is a fierce attack on the targets culture that has dominated UK public sector management in the last 20 years. He looks at topics such as game theory and belief in McGregor's Theory X, and how these have led to people in the public sector being driven by the need to achieve specific targets. The book provides a very strong criticism of how this reductionist and negative perspective has shaped public sector service delivery in recent times.

Jackson's book is an excellent introduction to the multitude of systems thinking approaches. It is particularly useful for linking the different systems thinking approaches to schools of philosophy, helping to explain the values that underpin the different methodologies. It categorises methodologies as functionalist, interpretive, emancipatory or post-modern, and for each provides a summary of strengths and weaknesses and case studies for where they have been used.

Perhaps the best introduction to systems thinking in management that there is.

"Soft Systems Methodology in Action" by Peter Checkland and Jim Scholes
Checkland first started writing about his Soft Systems Methodology in the 1970s, and as the methodology demands, continued to develop it through the following decades. This 1990 presentation represents a mature form of the approach, and while it can be somewhat difficult to penetrate the language and jargon it does provide an excellent source for starting to implement what is a very powerful technique.

It is steadily being recognised that traditional approaches to strategic planning (set a goal, identify steps needed to reach the goal, identify indicators that will measure progress, start) are often not very effective. As Helmuth von Moltke is quoted as saying "No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force."

Scenario planning is an alternative way to plan for the future. This book is written by one of the originators of the technique, originally developed at Royal Dutch Shell.

"The Fifth Discipline" by Peter Senge
In any discussion of systems thinking in management it is difficult to overlook this book, which has probably been the most popular 'airport bookshop' read on the subject of systems. It provides a good explanation of System Dynamics, but unfortunately goes no further and the casual reader may be left thinking that systems thinking is limited to this one very specific discipline. With this caveat, it is still a useful read.

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