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  Framing Poverty as a Complex Issue & Why that Matters

Complexity conceptIn the first seminar of this “Foundation” series, Liz Weaver and Mark Cabaj make the case for framing poverty as a complex issue, describe key features of complex issues, and explore the implications for leading and managing a community-wide effort to reduce poverty.

Learning Objectives:

  • To become acquainted with the concepts of complexity, poverty as a complex issue and the implications for an adaptive leadership style. These concepts may increase the potential for progress on poverty reduction.

On this page you'll find:

Meet the Thought Leaders

Liz WeaverLiz Weaver - Liz Weaver, Lead Coach of the Vibrant Communities Canada team, provides coaching, leadership and support to Ontario community partners, including Opportunities Waterloo Region and the Hamilton Roundtable on Poverty Reduction.   As lead coach, she helps initiatives develop their frameworks of change, supports and guides their projects and helps connect them to Vibrant Communities and other comprehensive community collaborations. Read more here.

Mark CabajMark Cabaj - Mark Cabaj is a founding Principal of Tamarack – An Institute for Community Engagement, an organization based in Waterloo, Ontario, focused on assisting people build strong communities through local action.

Mark joined Tamarack in 2002 and is currently the Executive Director of Vibrant Communities – a network of communities and national organizations that use collaborative, comprehensive approaches to substantially reduce poverty within Canada.

Mark’s current focus is on developing approaches and techniques for understanding, planning and evaluating initiatives that address complex issues, such as neighborhood renewal, poverty and homelessness, community safety, educational achievement and health.  He is particularly involved in expanding the ideas and practice of developmental evaluation, a new approach to evaluation which places a heavy emphasis on learning and design in emerging and sometimes fast moving environments. Read more here.

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Why Frame Poverty as a Complex Issue

Vibrant Communities began in 2002 to explore the potential and practice of working comprehensively to reduce poverty.  Despite many successes, in the early days there were many struggles with planning, evaluation, communication, and so on.  The staff, participating communities and the sponsors realized they were using the lens of “simple” and “complicated” to tackle a complex issue.  Concepts drawn from complexity theory offered new ways to approach problems like poverty.

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Stacey Matrix

For example, the Stacey Matrix plots issues according to the level of agreement there is among stakeholders about the solution to a problem versus the amount of certainty there is that a given intervention will have the desired result. 

If you have a lot of agreement and a lot of certainty about an issue, the problems are simple, i.e. a right answer exists.  When you move away from certainty and agreement, the issues become political, complicated or even chaotic.  Poverty reduction is usually in the zone of complexity.

The  Cynefin Framework, pioneered by David Snowden and his co-workers, is another model to describe complex problems.

Stacey Matrix Cynefin Framework

In this clip, Mark gives examples and uses the Stacey Matrix to describe the differences between simple, complex, political and chaotic problems.

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Seven Characteristics of Complexity

Just having a framework might not help you recognize complexity when you see it. Mark outlined how people involved in Vibrant Communities considered the work of complexity scholars, then looked at how seven characteristics of complexity apply to the issue of poverty.

  1. It is difficult to frame
  2. The cause and effect relationships are unclear
  3. There are diverse stakeholders
  4. Each experience of poverty is unique
  5. The nature of poverty evolves
  6. There is no obvious right or wrong set of solutions
  7. There is no objective measure of success

Mark refers to some of the big thinkers in complexity theory in this clip, and gives examples to illustrate how the characteristics above play out in real situations.

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Perverse Consequences

Not recognizing the dynamics of complexity can result in perverse consequences.

For example, treating poverty as a simple issue can mean cookie cutter solutions, ignoring the need to customize responses, ignoring creative thinking, reinforcing silos, and settling for low leverage responses that don’t recognize the interconnections that result in poverty.

Treating poverty like a complicated issue can leave responsibility for addressing poverty with experts, rather than unleashing the capacity of the entire community.  

Treating poverty as a political issue can result in well meaning but ultimately clumsy and simplistic interventions with unintended consequences that ultimately do not help move the needle on poverty.

But treating poverty like a chaotic situation can mean ignoring the issue altogether – or creating conditions for another round of simplistic responses.

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Principles of Adaptive Leadership

What are the implications for community leaders who are trying to reduce and eliminate poverty?  What does adaptive leadership to deal with complex situations look like?  

So far, Vibrant Communities has pulled together ten principles to guide those charged with leading responses to complex issues.

  1. Convene stakeholders
  2. Focus public attention
  3. Cultivate high aspirations
  4. Use framing as a tool
  5. Build a good enough vision, let direction arise
  6. Chunk and link areas of work
  7. Go for multiple – sometimes competing – actions
  8. Court and mediate conflict
  9. Maintain productive distress
  10. Acknowledge multiple accountabilities and measures of progress

In this clip, Mark talks about the different kinds of tensions that are inherent in poverty reduction and how they can be maintained in “productive distress,” that is, in a pressurized environment that is achieving work, but not blowing up.

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Emerging Practice

Even when we know we should approach things differently, the way we think and organize our leadership, accountability, results and stakeholder relations pressures us to work in conventional ways. In some cases, it takes a heroic effort to respond with these principles in mind.

In this clip, Mark describes a number of organizations who are developing new ways of dealing with things like planning, evaluation, and governance in complex situations, many of whom appear in the Links and Resources below.  Mark also gave an example from Winnipeg of an initiative that shows how they orchestrated their approaches to interrelated issues.

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Reflection Questions

  1. To what extent do the seven characteristics of complexity fit with the issue of poverty in my community?
  2. If adaptive leadership is needed to effectively address the issue of poverty, are certain leadership characteristics more significant than others?  How have I seen these characteristics play out in leaders in my community or in my own leadership style?
  3. How can we build leadership capacity in communities to deal with the complexity of poverty? 

To reflect on these and other important questions, refer to the Resources and Links below.

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Links & Resources

Poverty as a Complex Issue – Paper Coming Soon!

Poverty as a Complex IssueThis two page handout includes the Stacey Matrix, seven characteristics of complexity and ten principles for adaptive leadership.

Understanding Poverty as a Complex Issue - This one page handout summarizes and gives links to many of the resources mentioned in this online seminar.

A Comprehensive Approach to Poverty Using Strategic Drivers - This resource describes how communities can use strategic drivers as a starting point to plan for comprehensiveness.  The resource incorporates the resiliency framework outlined by Sherri Torjman of the Caledon Institute for Social Policy.  An online seminar describes the resource.

The Poverty Compendium – This resource categorizes 147 strategies for reducing poverty and describes frameworks and processes that groups use to move towards comprehensiveness. An online seminar describes the resource. 

Poverty and Poverty Reduction - This three-part online seminar series examines alternative approaches to conceiving poverty and poverty reduction.   It seeks to strengthen the capacity of communities to make choices about how best to frame, unfold, measure and communicate about local poverty reduction efforts.

Working With Complex Issues – This online seminar with Brenda Zimmerman explores the implications for leadership and management of efforts to tackle complex issues, and how complexity is related to social innovation.

The Plexus Institute – This website shares insights from complexity science and showcases much of Brenda Zimmerman’s work. 

SAS2 Social Analysis Systems – This website is an online resource of techniques and tools to help people learn how to bring problem-solving and dialogue into their communities and workplaces, and mobilize people and rich knowledge from diverse sources. 

The Cognitive Edge – This website is focused on developing new methods and tools to assist organisations with truly complex problems and opportunities. David Snowden is “Founder and Chief Scientific Officer” and the site includes techniques connected to the Cynefin framework mentioned in the seminar.

Leadership without Easy Answers – “(Ronald) Heifetz presents clear, concrete prescriptions for anyone who needs to take the lead in almost any situation, under almost any organizational conditions, no matter who is in charge, His strategy applies not only to people at the top but also to those who must lead without authority--activists as well as presidents, managers as well as workers on the front line.” [from Google Books overview]

The Working Poor: Invisible in America – In this book, David K. Shipler, an award winning journalist, describes the lives of America’s low-wage earners and families living in or near poverty. The book examines the various interlocking characteristics of poverty with low wage jobs, its individual and systemic causes, and explores measures for improving the prospects for working families.

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Framing Poverty as a Complex Issue & Why that Matters

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The Ontario Trillium Foundation