Researching outside the box

Researching outside the box

29 September, 2020    

The benefits and challenges of systems practice for engaged ecosystem research

At the beginning of this year, Cenfri set out to understand the tech innovation ecosystems in Cape TownNairobi and Lagos, joined (for the Lagos project) by our partners at the Lagos Business School. As perpetually curious researchers, we are well-versed in gathering large quantities of data and diving into the details, step by step, piece by piece. However, for this project, we decided to go down a different path and apply a Systems Practice approach, in which we tackled the details head-on, in deep collaboration with key ecosystem players – allowing us to embrace the whole picture simultaneously.

The experimental application of this tool to our project was a learning journey in its own right, for both our organisations. In this article, we’ll describe our recent experience with Systems Practice, highlighting the benefits and challenges of exchanging traditional research methods for a more collaborative approach. While this adjustment required a bit of a mindset shift for researchers like ourselves, it was definitely worth the temporary discomfort, as it allowed us to achieve actionable insights for ecosystem work at the end.

Systems Practice: A brief introduction

Systems Practice is a methodology for solving complex problems, as well as a general way of thinking about them. Its ultimate aim is to cause enduring social change. It helps us push beyond immediate problems to see the underlying patterns, the ways we may leverage the system, and how we can learn and adapt as the system continues to change. In other words, it allows us to embrace complexity, rather than detangling and compartmentalising all individual components.

We applied a tailored version of the Omidyar Group System Practice approach. This involved a mixture of literature reviews, internal working sessions involving only our staff, and innovation ecosystem focus groups involving representatives from tech startups, innovation hubs, investors, policymakers and education providers for each of our three cities. Through this process, we identified key themes, enablers and inhibitors (significant forces that either support or undermine the health and effectiveness of the system) at play in each ecosystem. We interrogated these through cause-and-effect analyses, and so uncovered their interdependencies. We captured the results of these essential yet tricky exercises (there are ample rabbit holes to get lost in!) in interactive ecosystem maps for each city, and accompanying narratives and blogs.

We subsequently organised focus group discussions with ecosystem participants, during which stakeholders were invited to interrogate and change parts of the relevant ecosystem map. We also guided stakeholders through exercises to identify key leverage points within the system – actions for change that strike a balance between feasibility and long-term positive impact in the system. Through debating over, and voting on, these leverage points, we identified prioritised lists of leverage points for each city, which now form the basis of future engagements.

To illustrate this in more practical terms, here’s a sample of our findings in Cape Town: Enablers in this innovation ecosystem include venture capitalists, the ample presence of high-quality education (both from traditional universities and more innovative training providers), and lifestyle factors that make the city an attractive base for various players in the space. Inhibitors to a flourishing innovation ecosystem include the divided nature of the city, where many of the support systems for entrepreneurs aren’t sufficiently accessible to less-advantaged entrepreneurs – which hampers the positive influence of some of the powerful enablers (an example of an interdependency). Taking this and many more factors into account, our focus group agreed on a list of actionable leverage points that include things like mentoring, thinking strategically about the location of startup events, and exploring more inclusive formats for events and training programmes. For more detail, see this article.

Benefits of the systems practice approach

For us, the benefits of applying a Systems Practice approach to this project can be broken down into three core benefits.

First, Systems Practice is a way to organise and deal with complex systems, without getting lost in siloed details. Using Systems Practice to better understand these innovation ecosystems was a natural fit. Innovation ecosystems are ultimately complex adaptive systems consisting of a multitude of intertwined factors, ranging from the tangible (such as enabling regulatory environments or talent) to the intangible (such as the presence of diversity or an entrepreneurial spirit). To fully understand these ecosystems, one cannot simply break them up into individual parts and analyse them in isolation: Doing so would ignore the interdependencies between factors and minimise the dynamic nature of the system.

Second, understanding the ecosystems by identifying leverage points also provided a practical tool for stakeholder engagement. The process brings stakeholders in as co-creators of the final frameworks and conclusions, rather than mere data sources. This not only contributed to the robustness of our findings but also ensured that key ecosystem players were fully invested in the final agreed-upon leverage points that they should focus on within their organisations to advance the broader ecosystem. This is especially useful in a dynamic environment that requires both immediate solutions and longer-term strategic approaches, in which traditional theoretical constructs and methods may not be suitable to explain emergent industry dynamics.

Finally, we benefitted from recording and reporting on our insights in a visual manner, through the interactive systems maps. These maps are an exploratory tool to visually work through the various interdependencies in the system, and they are an intuitive way to analyse the possible impacts of identified leverage points – even unexpected indirect effects. The maps are also easily adjusted, making it possible to track changes in ecosystem dynamics over time, to understand what might have changed. And there are many people who enjoy engaging with an interactive and colourful tool, instead of reading a long report!

Systems practice challenges, tips and tricks

The benefits of this approach for complex and dynamic projects notwithstanding, we did experience some challenges along the way. Here’s how they can be addressed:

  • Shift your mindset: Systems Practice is neither a diagnostic tool focused on analysis, nor a network mapping exercise aimed at connecting stakeholders and their actions and relationships. It is instead a sense-making process aimed at understanding intangible forces of influence. It’s more about listening and watching than doing. And it’s necessary to accept the fact that you will not uncover every single detail – nor do you need to.
  • Use mix-n-match methods: Although stakeholder participation is crucial to this approach, it’s not sufficient to enable complete understanding of a system. A full understanding requires a combination of traditional research methods (including literature reviews, expert interviews and internal iterations) in addition to the group participation approach.
  • Plan for more time: Wrapping one’s head around different factors and their interdependencies can and will take time. Ensure that the discussions, interviews and meetings you’ve planned are long enough to accommodate this process.
  • Keep diversity front and centre: As Systems Practice is inherently a participatory sense-making exercise, a lot of focus needs to be put on team composition. An important step in our journey was pulling in diverse groups of people from within Cenfri (across project teams), and without (including the team at Lagos Business School, and the wide variety of ecosystem stakeholders).
  • Apply active facilitation: Dealing with different personalities comes with the territory when large and diverse groups of participants are involved. Be ready to hone and apply your active facilitation skills, to ensure that everybody is heard. This may require you to think outside of the box. Can you work with break-out groups? Can you allow participants to write down their answers (on sticky notes or in a live document), rather than contribute in a plenary discussion? Can you bring in voting, so that there is an element of anonymity?
  • When engaging virtually, be over-prepared: Options for active facilitation are available, whether you organise your discussions in person or virtually. That being said, it’s important to effectively transition your research approach to the virtual environment, especially when that approach requires high levels of ideation and participant engagement. And with the less-natural element of virtual engagement, it is better to be over-prepared. Consider how participants will engage: Will they be on their phones, or on computers? Will internet connectivity allow for video chats to be used? Make sure to plan for facilitation both with video and audio, and have back-up plans and back-up-back-up plans.

Systems Practice is a tool that can facilitate more than just a research product. For both business schools and think tanks, like Lagos Business School and Cenfri, this approach can be a valuable strategy to combine a theoretical understanding of key concepts with practical, on-the-ground knowledge and strategizing. We look forward to continuing our engagement with innovation ecosystems across the continent, as we collaborate to make sense of these dynamic systems and to maximise their impact.

For more information on how Cenfri and Lagos Business School are applying Systems Practice in their projects, please reach out to Eden d’Oliveira (Cenfri) or Olayinka David-West (Lagos Business School).

This article was first published on Next Billion as part of the Openi2i series an initiative of Cenfri and Finmark Trust.


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