Betwixt & Between

Issue #3

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Complexity and partnering: Learning to ‘see’ for more effective brokering

Abstract: Partnership brokers play an important role in navigating complex problems in partnerships. When they look at their partnerships and the interwoven webs of relationships overlaid with the different narratives that participants bring, it can be difficult to ‘see’ what is actually happening. The author believes that by developing the ability to recognize – or ‘see’ – our partnership’s, complexity can equip us to respond with more appropriate tools and techniques. In this paper, the author explores complexity in partnering and proposes ways for brokers to improve their complexity ‘eyesight’ and what strategies to deploy in addressing the challenges that complexity presents.

Complexity and partnering: learning to ‘see’ for more effective brokering

3D filmmakers shoot their movies simultaneously from two slightly different angles in two different colours. Each image, from the slightly different angle, is separated into different sides of our brain by 3D glasses. When our brain puts the images together, we see the combined images as three dimensional and…, that speeding car is hurtling off the screen towards you. You are seeing more than you expected.

When partnership brokers look at their partnerships with their interwoven webs of relationships overlaid with different narratives, it can be difficult to ‘see’ what is actually happening. Partnerships are multidimensional. Complexity resides in the very nature of a cross-sector partnership. I believe that developing the ability to recognize or ‘see’ our partnership in light of complexity is a skill that can better equip us to respond with more appropriate tools and techniques.



This thought paper explores some concepts inherent in complexity and partnering, and how brokers can improve their complexity ‘eyesight’ and deploy strategies to address these challenges.

The paper draws on the study of complexity which attempts to identify the principles that underlie the behaviour of complex adaptive systems. In these systems, for example climate change or child poverty, large numbers of components interact with each other in ‘nonlinear’ ways, i.e.  1 + 2 = ‘it depends’.

So where do we start a conversation on complexity? One starting point is to look at the nature of the problems that partnerships are formed to address. Albert Einstein, the quotable and brilliant physicist said ‘If I had 20 days to solve a problem, I would spend 19 days to define it.’

Brenda Zimmerman describes problems and their nature as simple, complicated and complex[1]. She defines simple problems as problems that can be solved when you follow a recipe, for example, when faced with a flat tire or a vaccine rendered useless by a lack of refrigeration. Complicated problems, on the other hand, like flying a rocket to the moon, need sophisticated systems of organization and decision making but are in essence solving many simple problems.

Both simple and complicated problem operate within the realm of things knowable. If I do X, then Y is going to happen. On the other hand, complex problems, like raising a child or chronic climate change, are inherently unknowable due to the constantly changing nature of the system and the interaction between elements that creates unpredictable outcomes. For example, consider raising children. Many of us have known families that have raised several children under the same conditions but the children have had vastly different outcomes. I don’t think anyone knows exactly why that happens – it is a complex series of interactions that would have been impossible to predict.

This subset of problems, sometimes call ‘wicked’[2] problems, confounds society’s attempts to solve them. The UN Secretary General, Bank Ki Moon once called them problems without passports[3] as they represent issues of interdependence and the need to work together to resolve them. This is relevant to partnership brokers because complex problems are systemic in nature and it implies that, as single sector solutions are ineffectual, our best hope lies in some form of cross sector collaboration.

The ‘wickedness’ label doesn’t come from the negative outcomes the problems create but the incomplete, sometimes contradictory understanding of how they behave. This unpredictability makes them difficult to understand, explain, define and therefore to solve.

So how can partnership brokers make sense of all this when it comes to improving their complexity ‘eyesight’?. There are probably three main lessons.

Partnering brokering lesson 1:  Build shared understanding, align and manage expectations

Creating a shared understanding of the nature of the problem is our first step. Is it a complicated problem that would respond to a linear problem solving approach or is it a messy complex problem? Can the challenges be better described as complex adaptive systems or ecosystems? This metaphor can certainly help envisage the connective nature of the elements and how feedback from one element can loop through and between other elements.

In my work, I have used ‘mind maps’ or graphical mapping of the problem elements to get ‘them down’ on paper and show the connections and potential feedback mechanism. In his 2011 book Global Action Networks[4], Steve Waddell describes a number of visual diagnostic tools from semantic clouds to issue crawl mapping to help see ‘beyond formal structures to what is actually happening’. Taking the time to map and understand the problem as a group (following Einstein’s advice) helps create a shared understanding of problem amongst partners.

You may find that introducing the language of complex or ‘wicked’ problems can meet resistance. People can be discouraged by “problems so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them.”[5] If, as a broker, you recognise that the partnering challenges have an element of ‘wickedness’, then you can begin by encouraging dialogue about the resolution of the problems as a long term process that requires a systemic approach; and avoid raising expectations that these kinds of problems can be resolved with a ‘silver bullet’ or single isolated solution.

Brokers can also navigate the challenge by using a theory of change as a guiding framework. I have used a theory of change approach to define the steps required to achieve a given long-term change goal by identifying the connected building blocks that would contribute to the desired change. Building a theory of change involves an abstract sequential thinking, or imagining how the outcomes of activities will generate X results which accomplish Y change assuming Z preconditions. I also found that creating a theory of change ‘roadmap’ as a graphic representation delivered dual benefit for the partnership and for me as the broker: it became a powerful tool for the group to understand what was planned and how to adjust the process when the ‘unpredictable’ happens. The graphic representation helped me to see the entire process to guide activities and their sequence without losing site of the complex systemic problem we were tackling.

Working through a theory of change as a group is a powerful way of building a common understanding of the problem and equipping people with a shared language. While this does demand an investment of time, enabling partners to communicate productively can allow work to progress quickly.

Building a shared understanding also helps in aligning expectations of timing and understanding personality dynamics. I have been caught unaware when different partners have shared their different notions of when results can be achieved via the partnership process – often different from each other and with overall unrealistic timeframes. Research has pointed to the potential for rupture when partners have significantly different expectations of results and time frames[6].

As a broker, you have to manage expectations and their timing to avoid an ‘expectation dissonance’. Building deeper shared understanding also means that you have to encourage individual partner organizations to share what each hopes to accomplish. If partners understand what it takes to keep all partners committed and participating fully as well as the drivers behind their partners’ decisions, they can build a deeper level of understanding of what it is like to be ‘in their shoes’. This joint ‘owning’ of another organization’s goals builds a resilient partnership, with partners committed to everyone achieving their objectives.

In a current relationship that I am brokering, we discussed each organisation’s individual objectives in advance of the preparation of the partnering MoU. When we came to create the MoU, the decision was taken to include both the partnership’s shared goals as well as the individual organization goals.

Even when you have created common understanding of the goals or managed partner expectations, there is a third element a broker should consider: the personality dynamics at play in the group. Here I have found the work of Sandra Segal and David Horne at Human Dynamics[7] particularly helpful. Based on a body of research evaluating hundreds of thousands of people from thirty cultures since 1979, they have identified fundamental distinctions in the way people naturally process– using their mental (objective), emotional (relational), and physical (practical) capacities. They suggest that people combine these in a dynamic interplay to form different, distinct patterns or “ways of being”, which they term as personality dynamics.

Each personality dynamic is characterized by fundamentally different inner processes in the way they inherently learn, assimilate information, relate, communicate, approach tasks, problem solve, contribute to others, respond to stress and trauma, and maintain health and wellness. When there is a lack of recognition of these differences in people, there is often misunderstanding, conflict, and an inability to make use of individual and group potential. All this is very relevant in the partnering context.

The concept of personality dynamics has resonance for how complexity is addressed in cross-sector partnerships –not only in the way the individuals involved in the partnership might approach it but also in highlighting any sector-specific differences. Awareness of the individual dynamics can help achieve greater self-awareness and understanding of others, improving communication and cooperation and more effective learning within the partnership.

By consciously respecting each other’s strengths and capacities, the partners would be in a better position to solve problems more creatively. Misunderstanding between the sectors has often been cited as a reason for ineffective and troublesome relationships. Segal and Horne’s assertion that people “see the world” or “are motivated by” their mental (objective), emotional (relational), and physical (practical) capacities can be helpful here. For instance, we can suggest this:

  • Mentally centred individuals prefer to deal with abstractions and concepts. As the public sector is responsible for the creation and enforcement of rules,  then mentally centred/objective people dominate this area;
  • Physically centred people prefer to do and learn by touching and doing i.e. through ‘seeing is believing’. The private sector typically attracts physically centred/practical workers who enjoy generating quantifiable results and taking action.
  • Emotionally centred people understand reality “in their hearts” and are motivated by emotion to act. Civil society is dominated by people motivated by their spirit and a motivating sense of social justice and sustainability.

A cross-sector partnership typically brings together different kinds of organizations with different goals and ways or working and the people that represent these organizations can have fundamentally different ‘ways of being’ vis-a-vis their different ‘centeredness’. Many of us have been in situations where we have felt that people seem to be intent on misunderstanding each other or ‘twisting’ facts to align them to their perspective. It can feel that whilst we are all on the same ‘bus’, we are looking out through different windows and arguing about what we are seeing. Our personal paradigms dictate how we see the world around us.

When people hold firmly to their beliefs, it can confound efforts to make progress in developing, planning and managing multi- sector collaboration. The study of complexity defines this effect as social fragmentation and is a function of the amount of social interaction implicit in the partnership and the extent of the difference.

If we agree that there is a ‘power’ in partnering then we should be open to the idea that there are also “powers” that resist our work to create functioning collaborations. These powers can be strong, potentially invisible to practitioners, and can be actively pulling apart something that is whole, separating people from each other, scattering information, thwarting learning and resisting efforts to bring things into order. This force has been described as fragmentation[8] and it can be a formidable force capable of pulling down thoughtfully facilitated relationships. As brokers we need to be able to ‘see’ it before it catches you unaware –the equivalent of the 3D speeding car hurtling at you from the movie screen.

Partnering Brokering Lesson 2:  Use reflective practice to deal with fragmentation

Socrates challenged us to ‘know thyself’ and we could argue that this humbling strategy can help confront the forces of fragmentation.

We all know that a skilled partnership broker takes the time to reflect on his or her reactions and perceptions of a partnership to understand better how to support its development. This reflective practice is a tool to address fragmentation by helping brokers realize that we don’t all think and see the world in the same way.

C.S. Lewis, the British author said that ‘true humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.’ When we become self-aware of our own centeredness, we can bring the paradigms of others to light with a ‘humble certainty’ carefully and help participants step outside of their ‘knowing’ to appreciate and understand others, and if needed take action. The nemesis of fragmentation is a group which has a clear shared understanding of the problem and takes action needed to address the problem.

As I pause to reflect here, I picture in my mind birds moving in large flocks. A large number of individual birds flying together with amazing coordination; soaring and diving together; acting as a single entity without an identifiable directing force. This is an example of a complex adaptive system.

When birds flock and fish school, they behave in nonlinear ways and adhere to rules that guide such behaviour in these complex systems. These rules, when followed by members, give rise to coordinated, unpredictable collective behaviour that is self-organizing. In the case of a flock of birds, they apply three rules to make it possible; all birds maintain the same speed, they stay as close as possible to each other and when they turn, it is always into the centre.

Complex systems and their nonlinear behaviour can’t be understood by understanding individual components but by stepping back and looking at how the interactions between the components create a system that is ‘more than the sum of its parts.’

To varying degrees, these complex systems exhibit self-organization; the system’s components organize themselves to act as a coherent whole without the benefit of any central or outside controller. When facing a complex problem, our partnership’s response, its processes and activities need to mirror this to some degree and become self-organizing and capable of functioning in a nonlinear environment.

Partnership Broker Lesson 3: Use flexible but structured management structures to address complex problems

In complex adaptive systems, linear management models and implementation plans can break down. Brokers need to explore how to guide the partnership’s management processes and governance structures that are aligned to the partnership goals but leave opportunities for adaptation to local context.

Einstein, my adopted favourite partnership philosopher, said that “problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.” If we accept that our traditional linear management has both contributed to the creation of ‘wicked’ problems and failed to solve them, then we need a higher level of thinking and action to find a way forward.

Creating ‘rules’- or criteria-based guidance structures-  can influence decision making and give partners an opportunity to adapt and experiment. One framework for designing and executing large multi-stakeholder projects for widespread social change is Collective Impact[9]. This approach has identified five conditions for success. One condition –  ‘Mutually Reinforcing Activities’ – encourages each organization to chart their own course as long as all their efforts contribute to established goals which support an overarching plan. Outcomes from these activities and their impact are monitored closely and adjustments made constantly to adjust interventions to an ever evolving problem.

These descriptions of complexity and strategies can make everything sound neat and tidy. However, I accept that applying these principles in the real world may face considerable challenges when addressing complex problems.

I have personally struggled in my work as a partnership broker to identify the interconnected nature of the problems and appreciate the drivers of participants in a partnership. Sometimes it just appears to be “a big mess” where people are complaining about the lack of results, the time it is taking, incompetence and plenty of blame for the “other” person or organization.

If I apply my broker’s reflective perspective, then I can recognize that often the ‘blame game’ directed at management, leaders, external forces or internal players is complexity in one of the masks it wears.

We have to be wise to see complexity and courageous to expose it. We also have to accept that it lives in the places where we want to work and embrace the challenges and the opportunities that it presents. Brokers who have the ability to recognize and illuminate complexity have a valuable ‘3D vision’ to see what others can miss. This capacity to see can help develop the tools and group’s capabilities to confront complexity in cross sector partnerships.

So make a new friend, shake hands with complexity.



Brad Henderson

Brad has been messing around in partnerships for more than 15 years in Europe, the Americas and Africa with international development NGOs.  He is currently the Global Partnering Advisor at World Vision International and provides technical assistance to support World Vision’s partnering aspirations and coordinates its Partnering Community of Practice.

Brad has been involved in the design and facilitation of a wide range of complex partnerships with donors, business and the civil society.  He has been able to explore collaboration academically while a Fellow in Philanthropy at the Center for Civil Society Studies, Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and completed the Postgraduate Certificate in Cross-Sector Partnership at the University of Cambridge.  He is a PBAS accredited partnership broker since 2009.



[1] Professor of Policy/Strategic Management at the Schulich School of Business at York University.

[2]  Horst Rittel and Melvin M. Webber described the concept of wicked problems in a 1973 treatise, contrasting wicked” problems with relatively “tame” problems in mathematics, chess, or puzzle solving. The concept of wicked problems has entered popular language and one helpful overview is Wicked Problems & Social Complexity written by Dr. Jeff Conklin downloadable at link 8 below.


[4]  Waddell, Steve, Global Action Networks; Creating our Future Together, 2011  Chapter 4.

[5]  Laurence J. Peter was a Canadian educator best known for his conceptualization of the Peter Principle.

[6]  Crowley, James & Cristina Alzaga, The Rubik’s Cube of Cross Sector Collaboration; Connecting Business and Development Research Finding, Conclusions and Implication June 2009, page 32.


[8] Jeff Conklin Wicked Problems  & Social Complexity.


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