Many peacebuilding interventions seeking to support rule of law get stuck. The reason they get stuck may have little to do with the law and its technical dimensions and more with a tendency to treat certain rule of law systems as if they were orderly, regular, and predictable. In reality, peacebuilding practitioners work with complex systems, namely systems that are disorderly, irregular, and unpredictable. This report draws upon several years of experimentation and research in the field of systems thinking and complexity at USIP. It suggests that practitioners may be better at managing confusion and uncertainty by adopting more flexible approaches as they support change in conflict affected environments.


  • Our traditional approach to peacebuilding and rule of law reform seems sound: ambitious objectives, injection of resources, teams of experts working intensely. Yet, we seldom seem to create truly successful and sustainable reforms.
  • Why do we get stuck? One possibility lies in how we view the systems we are working with. We tend to treat many peacebuilding and rule of law systems as if they were clock systems that are orderly, regular, and predictable. In reality, the environments in which we work are more like cloud systems in that they are disorderly, irregular, and unpredictable.
  • Drawing on the field of systems thinking, this report invites peacebuilding practitioners to use more than one lens when examining the systems and problems they face. Sometimes we will need to look at problems through a technical clock lens. Other times, we will need to use a broader lens focused on the complexity of the larger system. And often we will need to use both lenses as we manage different components of a reform effort at the same time.
  • Over the past decade, as many in the peacebuilding field have argued for more adaptive and flexible approaches to change, the authors have been researching new ways of doing things. While this report offers insights the authors have gained along the way, their conclusions do not try to account for and correct every constraint that hampers progress. Nor do the authors believe that systems thinking offers a magic formula for solving every problem. At its core, systems thinking requires a shift in power away from international actors and toward local agents who are feeling the need for change most acutely. If this shift can occur, our field can more effectively grapple with forces that either slow down or stall reform.
  • How do we apply systems thinking in the real world of peacebuilding? Systems thinking does not provide a formula or a rigid how-to guide, because rulebooks and formulas are of little use when dealing with complex systems. Instead, it gives us a flexible structure that allows us to reframe familiar peacebuilding tools and use them in new ways.
  • This reframing can be most effectively viewed as a set of interconnected challenges. We can explore these challenges by using different experiments and seeing how well they work. Rather than offering a step-by-step plan, this report invites the reader to consider which experiments might be most applicable to their own peacebuilding practices. The report includes a detailed list of experiments along with troubleshooting guidance and extensive research sources.
  • Using systems thinking is not easy. It forces us to live with confusion and reversals. Yet sometimes systems thinking can help us convert seemingly permanent roadblocks into obstacles that can, with time and hard work, be overcome. As violent conflict spreads to new corners of the world, ravaging entire cities and displacing millions of people, the ability to enhance our margin of success can make an enormous difference. Stephen Hawking observed that the twenty-first century would be the century of complexity. If we want to change the world, we need to become more fluent at understanding and working with this central human condition.
  • This report is the first in a series of publications and engagements that share what the authors have learned about systems thinking. An upcoming book will provide more information for helping practitioners design, implement, and evaluate interventions.

About the Report

This report invites peacebuilding practitioners to integrate principles of systems thinking and complexity theory into how they conceive, design, implement, and evaluate interventions. Based on research over the past ten years at USIP and drawing upon literature from other fields–such as organizational development, adaptive leadership, change management, and psychology–the authors argue for more adaptive and flexible approaches in peacebuilding and rule of law reform.

About the Authors

Philippe Leroux-Martin is the director of rule of law, justice, and security at USIP. Before joining USIP, Philippe was a fellow with the Future of Diplomacy Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School. He is the author of Diplomatic Counterinsurgency: Lessons from Bosnia and Herzegovina (Cambridge University Press, 2014). Vivienne O’Connor is a rule of law practitioner and academic with over fifteen years of experience in the field. She is currently working on research and training initiatives that integrate systems thinking and complexity theory with peacebuilding and rule of law. Vivienne is the author of several books and articles, including the Model Codes for Postconflict Criminal Justice, Volumes I and II (USIP Press, 2008).

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