Skip to content


How systems perspectives make us view capacity development differently

How systems perspectives make us view capacity development differently


In the previous post, Robbie introduced ‘Capacity Development 2’ or CD2 – a conceptual framework our team developed for drawing together recent thinking on capacity development.  The team (Robbie Gregorowski and Mel Punton from Itad, with Itad Associates Cheryl Brown, Pete Cranston, and Isabel Vogel) identified five core components of a CD2 approach. In this post, I want to look in more detail at the first of these: systems perspectives.

A quick reminder – the five components of CD2 are:

  1. Systems perspectives
  2. Four different dimensions of change: personal; relationships; collective patterns of thinking and action; and systems and structures.
  3. Behavioural competencies (moving beyond ‘skills’).
  4. Elements of an enabling environment in which CD2 can flourish.
  5. Digital competencies.

We think these distinguish the framework from ‘traditional’ approaches to capacity development, which often focus narrowly on building the skills needed to produce a specific output.  These approaches still have a place in the capacity development toolbox – but more often than not, new interventions have a much more nebulous aim: to improve the ability of a society or sector to continue to develop necessary skills, behaviours, networks and institutions that enable communities to adapt and self-renew into the future.

What are systems perspectives?

‘Systems perspectives’ relate to complexity science.  The relevance of complexity thinking to development has been brought to prominence recently including through the work of Ben Ramalingam and ODI’s Harry Jones. Ben’s book Aid on the Edge of Chaos  provides a great and readable introduction to the range of concepts within the complexity science world, and Duncan Green’s blog highlights many practical examples of how this relates to the development sector.   Complex systems perspectives suggest that, in many cases, development interventions do not lead to change in a rational, linear way that can be predicted in advance.  Instead, behaviours and interactions combine and amplify one another in diverse and sometimes surprising ways, with consequences that no-one could have predicted. I really liked this table from Ben’s book as a summary of how complexity perspectives differ from ‘conventional thinking’.

How systems perspectives make us view capacity development differently_table
Adapted From Aid on the Edge of Chaos

What does this mean for capacity development?  At least three things:

1. We need to focus on the many factors that influence behaviours and motives.

Complex systems perspectives emphasise the importance of real, unpredictable people.   They point towards the multitude of influences on people’s behaviours; and the social, economic, cultural and power dynamics that influence people’s motives to participate and interact – for example in a capacity building initiative. Therefore a complex systems view encourages us to adopt multiple, parallel interventions at different parts of a system we want to improve – looking at individual knowledge and skills, social influences and communication behaviours.

2. We need to expect change to be unpredictable, and be ready to adapt. 

Complexity approaches also emphasise the unpredictable nature of change.  A system (for example an organisation targeted for capacity development) can have ‘emergent properties’.  Like a murmur of starlings creating a complex dance that is more than the sum of their individual movements, collective patterns of action often emerge from the sum of individual behaviours.   Events interact and reinforce each other in a non-linear way, and small actions can have large consequences.  What this means is that the willingness and ability to adapt an intervention might be essential to the success of capacity building interventions.  As Owen Barder points out, rather than going into to an intervention with a fixed set of ‘activities’ we expect to lead to particular outcomes, we may need to take an attitude of experimentation.  We need to be ready to try new ideas and drop others based on regular and ongoing feedback.

3. We need to understand networks and relationships.

Traditional approaches to capacity development often focus on individuals. However, the relationships between individuals are often just as important.  Not just formal relationships, but those that may be hidden underneath organisational flow diagrams (think of the decisions made at the classic water cooler). Network approaches, from formal Social Network Analysis, to low-key participatory techniques like NetMap, can provide a tool for exploring:

  • Who has influence within certain networks?
    Who is well connected to other people, and who is poorly connected?
    How does information and influence flow between different actors?

These are only three of many implications of applying systems perspectives to capacity development.   Do you have any other examples?  And have you ever applied complexity thinking to capacity development?  Let us know your thoughts, and we’ll be back with more on CD2 shortly.