Portfolio approaches to change: emerging patterns & resources

This post focuses on the recent advancements in a 'portfolio' approach to change work which is happening across multiple organisations, and is an interesting signal in a move away from planning-based approaches.

I was first introduced to the term "Portfolio Sensemaking" by the UNDP work looking to establish the practice in their Accelerator Lab network, in 2019. This grew into an approach across the lifecycle of managing a portfolio, and a series of protocols.

What is a Portfolio approach?

"generating actionable intelligence from a portfolio of existing projects to accelerate the impact of the work"

As I understand it, the core elements of the approach are:

  • Moving away from single point solutions and toward a developing portfolio of interventions
  • Moving from a planning (analyse-to-predict) to an experimentation mindset (prototype-to-learn), in line with conventional wisdom about complexity
  • Move from trying to control an outcome, to starting from the world “as is” and existing assets to probe and adapt one’s way into preferable future scenarios
  • Ensure evaluation is in place to capture a range of insights and learnings when the interventions are active
  • Using the insights and learnings from the portfolio of interventions to inform changes and improvement across the portfolio and beyond
  • Work in action-learning cycles, rather than linear planning-based phases
  • Focus on capability being distributed across a team, rather than external consultants conducting "portfolio reviews"

This approach has strong echoes of the way we approached our work with Lifehack, which I wrote about in 'How we use experiments to drive insights' here:

How We Use Experiments To Drive Insights
In this article, I outline how we developed an impact evaluation framework, and an experimentation practice which drove our ability to rapidly gain insight.

More broadly, it appears to be an attempt to develop a methodology / practice to build on top of the efforts social labs (and other fields) made to increase the adoption of prototyping and experimentation culture, to tackle social and environmental complex challenges.

Who is using Portfolio Sensemaking?

So far, I have seen this approach being talked about by:

  • UNDP Accelerator Labs
  • Climate-KIC
  • Dark Matter Labs
  • Lifehack
  • Sitra
  • Chôra Foundation
  • Observatory of Public Sector Innovation (OPSI)
  • Dan Hill
  • Cognitive Edge

Who have I missed? Drop me a line on the chat in the bottom right.

Articles & Resources

This section aims to curate some of the articles and resources I've found most useful and illuminating in understanding and using the portfolio sensemaking approach.

UNDP - Introducing Portfolio Sensemaking

In this post from the UNDP Asia-Pacific team, they introduce the idea of portfolio sensemaking in the context of the Accelerator Labs.

Working on the engine — using portfolio sensemaking to accelerate learning
In their recent blog, Giulio, Alex and Bas outlined the goal of firmly embedding innovation within UNDP as part of reengineering the “mothership” to face future development challenges. As a first…

Portfolio approaches to tackle complex challenges.

Some notes on the emerging practice of portfolio approaches by leads from UNDP & Chôra Foundation:

Portfolio approaches to tackle complex challenges. Notes on an emerging practice
The soul searching is on. Both the public and development sector are increasingly aware that traditional ways of understanding problems and implementing interventions are ill suited for complex, fast…

Portfolios & Experimentation

The Dark Matter Lab team collective letter about their hopes and aspirations for 2020 (perhaps that became a little more complex than expected...) articulating some of their portfolio approach:

Amsterdam 2019–2020: Letter to our Future
We are beginning a new decade and a critical year for Dark Matter in terms of achieving aspirations arising from our Berlin, Scotland and Amsterdam 2019 team retreats. Amsterdam successfully…

Portfolio Protocols

The UNDP Team share some of their work to develop Portfolio protocols:

How can we accelerate the effects of portfolios of development projects?
After 8 months of road testing in around 15 country offices mainly in Asia Pacific (but also Africa and Eastern Europe) last week we released UNDP’s sensemaking and acceleration protocol. It’s been…

Saving the world: A portfolio approach

Rafael Kaufmann with a provocation about portfolio approaches to change:

Saving the world: a portfolio approach
Imagine a group of people with a reasonably large amount of resources woke up tomorrow and decided to solve some of our big problems. For the sake of argument, let’s say that they’ve landed on the…

Launching Labs

Thoughts from the UNDP team about how the Accelerator Labs should function so that they didn't create a culture of innovation on the fringes:

Acceleration Labs: the challenge of engaging the mothership
It is an exciting — and daunting — time to be working on innovation at UNDP. After years of coy embraces, innovation is now at the forefront of the organisation’s ambition to find a new relevance…

Sitra Portfolio Workshop

This post from Sitra is from the gathering to develop the portfolio approach further, with UNDP and Climate-KIC heavily involved in the participation.

Lab log #12: Innovation Portfolio Sensemaking and Management Workshop - Sitra
How can we be better at making an impact on the grand challenges that we are facing globally, in our societies and our organizations? This was the question that we explored in our two-day Innovation Portfolio Sensemaking and Management workshop together with leading-edge international partners.

Chôra Foundation

Sloan Management Review

This article from the Sloan Management Review outlines the portfolio management approach from an "innovation network" standpoint.

Accelerating Innovation Through a Network of Ecosystems
Use a networked approach to manage distributed innovation across teams, units, and regions.

Directional Systems Innovation

Climate-KIC outline their move from single point solutions to ecosystems of innovation directed at systems change:

Innovating in complexity: From single-point solutions to directional systems innovation

Mikael Seppälä did a great piece of work sourcing and curating a range of links focused on 'Portfolio Approaches to Sustainability', into a Google Doc, which is a perpetual work in progress.


Network of Governance & Regulatory Experimentation

Proving that the portfolio sensemaking approach isn't just for shiny innovation efforts, a collective of bright minds (Dark Matter Labs et al) established a network of experimentation for one of the areas most in need of continuous improvement - governance & regulation.

About — The Network of Governance and Regulatory Experimentation
What is the future of governance & regulation, in a machine readable, complex tomorrow? THE NETWORKRecognising that our shared futures require...

International Innovation Portfolios

Another Sitra post, this one focused on innovation portfolios, internationally.

Lab log #22: How are innovation portfolios employed internationally? - Sitra
Innovation portfolios are an emerging approach to tackle societal and global challenges because they require multi-stakeholder collaboration and the structures and practices that enable it. How is the approach employed internationally?

Transforming the Local Food sector

A post about one of the UNDP projects which is apply the portfolio sensemaking approach to the local food sector in Thailand, during COVID-19:

Post Covid-19 Local Food Systems- and related systemic responses to the new world
by Gorka Espiau, a Senior Fellow at Agirre Lehendakaria Center (ALC), Itziar Moreno, Programs Lead at ALC and Patrick Duong, UNDP Regional Governance Advisor in Asia and the Pacific. Before Covid-19…

Transformation Capital

Dominic Hofstetter (of Climate-KIC) outlines how funding may be applied to a portfolio sensemaking approach:

Transformation Capital — Systemic Investing for Sustainability
The science is clear, and the world’s top economic authorities agree: To safeguard human civilisation as we know it, we must fundamentally change the way our societies and economies operate. Our task…

Towards Targeted Systems Change

I wrote about my personal approach to creating a portfolio of prototypes, in the article 'Towards Targeted Systems Change':

Towards Targeted Systems Change
Modelling and communicating how to shift systems As I’ve written about in the recent past,[https://medium.com/mdes-environmental-social-impact] I focused my recentlycompleted Masters of Design focused on a domain I’m particularly passionateabout — environmental issues. This post aims to uncove…

COVID-19, Complexity & Leadership

Dave Snowden (of Cynefin & Sensemaker) talking during COVID-19 about how to support leaders to learn and reflect (cornerstones of portfolio sensemaking) and share across a network:

Prototyping Our Future

Written back in 2014, but addressing the idea of portfolios of innovation and drawing on social labs thinking, this free book is a notable early offering:

Prototyping Our Future: Social Labs For A Sustainable, Regenerative, & Thriving Future
Welcome to Prototyping Our Future: Social Labs For A Sustainable, Regenerative, & Thriving Future

Participatory City

A catalyst for a wide range of projects rooted in place, to develop a community-level experiment to scale participatory culture by the OpenWorks team:


Portfolio-based Climate Strategy

A thorough look at how deeply Climate-KIC have embedded the idea of portfolio apporaches into their organisation-wide strategy:

EIT Climate-KIC launches strategy for 2019-2022

Leverage Points

UNDP team in Malawi on accepting complexity, identifying possible leverage points and generating learning and knowledge that is fed into future program design:

‘Crossing the river while feeling the stones’ — Portfolio Approach to Governance in Malawi
In Malawi, we have been on the forefront of these efforts in doing development differently, from new ways of partnering with the private sector through challenge funds, to digital identity, and…

Snowballs vs Snowflakes

On different approaches to generating value from innovation activities - Chôra Foundation whitepaper on Layering Vs Funnelling:

From Narrative to Investment

The City Flow model developed by Dark Matter Labs, proposes a strategic process for Climate-KIC's "Healthy Clean Cities" initiative, and is a simple, approachable articulation of a portfolio approach:

How are we going to deliver systemic change for radical climate action in cities?
Cities represent a critical actor in society’s efforts to reach climate targets in the coming decade, and several cities across the world are stepping up in response to the challenge. This work is…

Developing Public Sector Portfolios

A workshop guide by OPSI which makes resources available to anyone wanting to gather people and get to work exploring portfolio approaches:

A prototype tool for exploring your innovation portfolio


The practice associated with portfolio approaches is growing in nuance and it's happening around the world in many different contexts.

Thankfully there's a reasonably large degree of open publishing about the experiences and findings, especially from the UNDP, Climate-KIC and Dark Matter Labs teams. Hat tips for this.

The next significant step I am interested in, is how these kinds of approaches can be normalised in all organisations which have a stake in tackling complex social & environmental problems. Currently, I'm working for a environmental-focused nonprofit which would significantly benefit from seeing:

a) tangible examples of portfolio approaches, and clear explanations of how they're different and why they might be better suited than current approaches

b) comparative evidence about portfolio performance, especially with an ROI lens, to assist with exploration of funding such approaches

c) pathways for capability building to support exploration of portfolio approaches

I'm looking forward to exploring how we can build on the collective learnings between the development of social labs in the 2010's, and the portfolio approaches which seem to be an evolution into the 2020's. I'm keen to hear from people doing this work in Australia especially.