Do systems fight back? Some lessons from agricultural research in development

Do long-established systems have an immune system that helps them resist transformational change? If so, how does it work?

These are important questions for anyone trying to change their organizations. If the system is going to strike back then knowing how and when that might happen can help save your initiative from being killed off.

In a recent paper published in the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, a number of leaders of a program that sought to change the CGIAR reflected on whether the premature closure of our program was a result of the “empire striking back” or our own mistakes. We concluded it was a bit of both.

A diagram showing elements of CRP-AAS Research in Development Approach
Figure. 1 A schematic showing the elements of the RinD approach developed by CRP-AAS

Our program was called the CGIAR Research Program on Aquatic Agricultural Systems (CRP-AAS) and was closed in 2016, four years after it started, and 8 years before we thought it would finish. Before closure, we developed an approach to carrying out agricultural research embedded in local development processes, called the research in development (RinD) approach. The approach is different to the main research approach practiced in other parts of the CGIAR. RinD begins with an agreement to tackle a multi-faceted development challenge facing an array of stakeholders. The starting point for research is broader, and there is a greater emphasis on stakeholder engagement across institutional scales. RinD puts more emphasis on the quality of processes such as convening, bridging, brokering, facilitation as well as building local capacity to run them. The purpose of doing so is to build trust and social capital to allow research to become embedded in local processes in meaningful and empowering ways. RinD is built on participatory action research and its principles of equity and inclusion.

Our intent was to develop an approach to agricultural research better able to respond to local needs and capacities. We were strongly supported by the CGIAR at the beginning. We were responding to a call made in the 1990s, and even earlier, for a new professionalism better able to develop systemic capacity for positive change on one hand, and critical awareness on the other.

Why then, after initial support, did the CGIAR close the program down when faced with funding cuts? It could have closed another program or spread the cuts across the portfolio of CRPs.

Firstly, we clearly made mistakes. New professionalism puts emphasis on values and changing mindsets as prerequisites to system change. We over-emphasized a constructivist “softer” approach to research and in doing so alienated more positivist-inclined colleagues that make up the majority of scientists employed in the CGIAR. What we should have done, as new professionalism emphasizes, was to articulate the complementary role of both paradigms in RinD.

In seeking to understand why we were closed down we became aware of other initiatives to bring in new professionalism that suffered similar fates to ours, including the adaptive collaborative management (ACM) approach at CIFOR (a CGIAR Center) and pioneering work at the Hawkesbury College in Australia. While writing the paper, I got in touch with Richard Bawden, who led the Hawkesbury work. He described a dynamic that he had experienced himself several times, that matched our experience.

  • There is initial institutional enthusiasm for a novel approach to address the inadequacies of the dominant paradigm. The novel approach itself constitutes a system that operates in a wider system, e.g., CRP-AAS operating in the CGIAR system.
  • All goes well while the narrative of the new approach fits within the prevailing worldview and the language of change remains familiar and relatively benign.
  • Difficulties arise for the new approach when it starts to profoundly challenge the larger system in which it is embedded with an unconventional worldview and paradigmatic practices. Adverse reactions are often sufficiently severe that they lead to rejection.

A rejection mechanism common to CRP-AAS and the Hawkesbury work were external evaluations framed by the commonly-held worldview. A review of the Hawkesbury work by two eminent academics recommended that ‘the use of the experiential learning approach as the over-riding philosophy for the teaching of agriculture should cease in favour of more conventional and well-proven pedagogical approaches, particularly in relation to the development and presentation of underpinning scientific knowledge’ (quoted in Bawden, 2005 p. 28). This is similar to the recommendation in the AAS external evaluation carried out by senior academics to ‘Shift the focus from PAR as the core research methodology … to an interdisciplinary mixed methods approach. Continuing work on PAR should take an explicit research stance …’ (CGIAR-IEA, 2015, p 86).

For ACM, closure was preceded by intense donor pressure to show return on investment, judged against the timeline of conventional research that can show concrete outputs earlier because it has a narrower and more technology-driven focus.

By themselves, neither the unfavourable evaluations nor donor pressure led to the demise of the respective initiatives. Rather the mechanisms were part of a broader pattern of negative reaction.

In summary, what did we learn? We know now that it is possible to set up a program based on new professionalism within a large research organization such as the CGIAR, and that doing so has value. Its value comes in bringing a broader, more inclusive, more appreciative and enabling approach that increases the potential for agricultural research to strengthen rural innovation systems. We believe that institutionalizing new professionalism remains one of the main challenges the CGIAR faces in remaining relevant in a ever-more complex and relational world. However, attempts at transformation will meet with damaging responses as the systems we set up to make the change induce negative reactions in the larger systems in which they must operate.

There are four pieces of advice I would give to anyone attempting to institutionalize new professionalism in the future:

  1. Start small and protect your niche until you have the evidence to show that your approach does work to a skeptical audience
  2. Be clear that the approach you want to take follows a different dynamic with greater sunk costs at the beginning that are expected to pay dividends over time due to the strengthening of local innovation systems. This links to an earlier blog I wrote about being clear about your main theory of change.
  3. Agree with the donor that you expect to alter your theory of change as the program learns through implementation and that you expect to be evaluated against your last theory of change, not the one in the original program proposal.
  4. Build from the start a monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEL) system matched to the program dynamic, i.e., it waits for outcomes to emerge and then works fast enough to inform course corrections to exploit opportunities and manage risk.


Bawden, R. (2005). Systemic development at Hawkesbury: Some personal lessons from experience. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 22(2), 151–164.  

CGIAR-IEA. (2015). Evaluation of CGIAR Research Program on Aquatic Agricultural Systems (AAS). Rome, Italy: Independent Evaluation Arrangement (IEA) of the CGIAR (April 2015). Retrieved from  

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