Systems Thinking – Change By Design

Design is a powerful tool to change the world. Humans have been constructing their experience of the world to meet their needs by design for eons. So, why not design a future that works better for all of us, instead of just for some of us? At a time when the entire world is up for reinvention – complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty call for innovative systems of thinking, leadership, and design.

As leaders we can choose to survive, or we can choose to thrive. These are two starkly different mindsets. The first says “This is unprecedented. We don’t know what’s going to happen, so now is not the time to taking any risks. We need to consolidate. Hunker down. Cancel innovation. Conserve cash. Wait for certainty and ride out the storm. Once it blows over, we’ll emerge unscathed – ready to crank the innovation handle again.” It sounds safe, sensible, and the responsible thing to do.

The thrive mindset says, “Alright team, looks like we have lemons. Lots of them! Who’s up for lemonade?” Instead of staying in the trenches with your head down, this mindset yells “Over the top! Charge!” It turns the innovation dial up to eleven. It feels dangerous, risky, and maybe even irresponsible. Here’s the thing: In unstable times we know that companies who innovate, easily outperform those that don’t. As a leader, your level of innovation mindset and passion to thrive will determine your organisations success now and into the future.

The world needs more pioneers of change, people who are willing to intentionally, and thoughtfully, disrupt the status quo of deep-seated problem arenas. Innovation is useful for iterating at the edges, but what the world is crying out for is creative changemakers who have the critical, cognitive, and practical tools to understand, intervene, and activate positive impacts globally. If we want to overcome the systemic issues behind today’s problems, then we need to change the thinking that led to them to begin with. Our current worldview warps how we relate to ourselves, each other and the world around us, and it’s this skewed mindset that creates system frailties. It’s this out-dated worldview that creates the symptoms of the day. To deal only with symptoms while leaving underlying causes unacknowledged is no recipe for the wise or urgent.

“A bad system will beat a good person every time.”

– W. Edwards Deming

The Mechanistic Worldview

Today’s business management mind-set perceives the organisation-as-machine, as it draws upon a linear, clockwork mode of thinking. The job of the manager is to manage and control business units within this organisation-as-machine through dashboards, levers and resource efficiencies. People are viewed as ‘human resources’ to be managed and controlled amid survival of the fittest. Trust goes out the window. Organisations become soul-sapping. The machine mindset adds layers of bureaucracy, and cultures become sick.  It is this very paradigm that created the Volkswagen debacle – a once trusted quality global brand caught cheating on vehicle emissions. 

A peer-reviewed study published in Environmental Research Letters estimated that approximately 59 premature deaths were caused by the excess pollution produced between 2008 and 2015 by vehicles equipped with Volkswagon’s defeat device – and that was only in the United States. A peer-reviewed study published in Environmental Pollution estimated that the fraudulent emissions would be associated with 45 thousand disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) and the value of life lost of at least 39 billion US dollars. Co-founder of the International Council on Clean Transportation stated “It’s not just fraud – it’s physical assault.” The company was fined billions of dollars and executives went to prison.

This is by no means an isolated case.  Neither are the corporate cultures where people come to work and switch off much of themselves, wear a mask, lie, hide, and fake every day. On the rise now is the racket of ‘purposeful brands’ – nice sounding platitudes of how an organisation seeks to help society while ruthlessly focused on becoming Number 1 in the market. Empty values are stuck on the walls, yet no one really embodies them in the day-to-day cut-and-thrust – they are merely boxes to tick in the next performance review. It’s the same logic that seeks reduction in carbon and water footprints through cost reduction yet has little concept of how or why the organisation can become a force for good. It’s a logic that has become divorced from life itself.  It corrupts and enslaves us. The collective unconscious begins to rupture… which means change is in the air.

“Pull a thread here and you’ll find it’s attached to the rest of the world.”

― Nadeem Aslam

New Earth Paradigm

In the New Earth Paradigm, we hold a participatory, interconnected worldview. We begin to perceive the individual parts themselves and the inter-relations of the parts within a holistic relational system. We start to realise that the organisation is not actually a machine, it is an emergent adaptive system that is continuously sensing and responding to its ever-changing environment. As we perceive this living organisation, we also begin to see that it thrives by enlivening all its stakeholders and creating flourishing futures for all life. We regain our sense of purpose as stewards of life on Earth, not plunderers. We start to create the space to heal ourselves and feel more connected again to real life.

“Systems Thinking is the discipline for discerning relationships and context that are not obvious.”
― Pearl Zhu

6 Systems Thinking Fundamentals

Words have power, and in systems thinking, we use specific words that intentionally define a different set of actions to mainstream thinking. Systems thinking requires a shift in our perception of the world around us to see wholes, interrelationships, and patterns of change rather than static snapshots of individual parts. From this perspective, we can determine the point of “highest leverage”, the places in the system where a small change can make a huge impact.

  1. Interconnectedness

Systems thinking requires a shift in mindset, away from linear to circular. The fundamental principle of this shift is that everything is interconnected. Everything counts; everything matters. Everything is reliant upon something else for survival. Humans need food, air, and water to sustain our bodies, and trees need carbon dioxide and sunlight to thrive. Inanimate objects are also reliant on other things: a chair needs a tree to provide its wood, and a cell phone needs electricity to recharge the battery. Interconnectedness defines a fundamental principle of life. From this understanding, we can shift the way we see the world from a linear, structured, mechanistic worldview to a dynamic, chaotic, interconnected array of networks, relationships and feedback loops. A systems thinker uses this mindset to untangle and work within the complexity of life.

  1. Synthesis

Synthesis refers to the combining of two or more things to create something new. In systems thinking, the goal is synthesis, as opposed to analysis, which is the dissection of complexity into manageable components. All systems are dynamic and often complex, which means we need a more holistic approach to understanding phenomena. Synthesis is about understanding the whole and the parts at the same time, along with the relationships and the connections that make up the dynamics of the whole. Essentially, synthesis is the ability to see interconnectedness.

  1. Emergence

We know that larger things emerge from smaller parts: emergence is the natural outcome of things coming together. In the most abstract sense, emergence describes the universal concept of how life emerges from individual biological elements in diverse and unique ways. Emergence is the outcome of the synergies of the parts; it’s about non-linearity and self-organisation. In this way, emergence is the outcome of things interacting together.

  1. Feedback Loops

Since everything is interconnected, there are constant feedback loops and flows between the elements of a system. We can observe, understand, and intervene in feedback loops once we understand their type and dynamics. The two main types of feedback loops are reinforcing and balancing. Reinforcing within a feedback loop is not usually a good thing. This happens when elements in a system reinforce more of the same, such as algae growing exponentially in a pond. In reinforcing loops, an abundance of one element can continually refine itself, which often leads to it taking over. A balancing feedback loop, however, is where elements within the system balance things out. Nature has this down to an art with the predator/prey situation. As we have witnessed throughout human history, when you take too much of one animal out of an ecosystem, the next thing you know, you have a population explosion of another (reinforcing feedback loop). For example, wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone Park in 1995, to curb the environmental degradation caused by the overpopulation of grazing animals.

  1. Causality

Understanding feedback loops is about gaining perspective of causality: how one thing results in another thing in a dynamic and constantly evolving system. All systems are dynamic and constantly changing in some way; this is the very essence of life! Causality, in systems thinking, is about cause and effect. It’s being able to decipher the way things influence each other in a system. Understanding causality leads to a deeper perspective on emergence, feedback loops, connections, and relationships, which are all fundamental parts of systems mapping.

  1. Systems Mapping

Systems mapping is one of the key tools of the systems thinker. There are many ways to map, from analogue cluster mapping to complex digital feedback analysis. However, the fundamental principles and practices of systems mapping are universal. Identify and map the elements of ‘things’ within a system to understand how they interconnect, relate and act in a complex system. From here, unique insights and discoveries can be used to develop interventions, shifts, or policy decisions that will dramatically change the system in the most effective way.

“Synthesis is about understanding the whole and the parts at the same time, along with the relationships and the connections that make up the dynamics of the whole.”

– Leyla Acaroglu

Disruptive Design Methodology

The Disruptive Design Method (DDM) is an approach to exploring, understanding, and evolving complex problems into sustainable solutions. Developed by Leyla Acaroglu after a decade of research and practice in sustainable design and creative change-making, it combines systems thinking, sustainability sciences, and design methodologies to create problem-loving creative changemakers who are capable of diving deep into complex problem sets, developing strong social innovation outcomes, and reconfiguring regenerative business toward the Circular Economy. The great thing about this simple method is that is allows for a three-dimensional perspective shift of a problem arena to ensure that interventions create positive change.

As with all great innovations, DDM was in part a reaction to the one-dimensional problem-solving techniques that Leyla had been taught through her years of traditional education. There are three distinct parts of the Disruptive Design Method – Mining, Landscaping, and Building – each is enacted and cycled through in order to gain a granulated, refined outcome through iterative feedback loops.

Stage One – Mining

Mining refers to beginning with a mindset of curiosity and exploration. In this phase, deep participatory research is conducted, suspending the need to solve, avoiding the urge to impose order, and embracing the chaos of the complex system you are seeking to understand. The tools of this phase are: research, observation, exploration, curiosity, wonderment, participatory action, questioning, data collection and analysis. This can be described as diving under the iceberg and observing the divergent parts that enable us to understand a problem arena in more detail.

Stage 2 – Landscaping

Landscaping is where you take all the parts uncovered during the Mining phase and begin to piece them together to form a landscaped view through systems mapping and exploration. Landscaping is the mindset of connection, where you take the resources you have mined and start piecing them together. In this way, you are creating a different perspective that enables a bird’s eye view of the problem arena. Insights are gathered, and locations of where to intervene in the system to leverage change are identified. The tools for this phase are: systems mapping (cluster, interconnected circles, etc.) dynamic systems exploration, synthesis, emergence, identification, insight gathering, and intervention identification.

Stage 3 – Building

Building is the ideation phase. Exploring creative ideas allows for the development of divergent design solutions that build on potential intervention points to leverage change within the system. The goal is not to solve but to evolve the problem arena you are working within so that the status quo is shifted. Here a diversity of ideation and prototyping tools are used to move through a design process so you can get to the best-fit outcome for your intervention. The key to this entire approach is iteration and ‘cycling through’ the stages to get to a refined and ‘best-fit’ outcome. Problems are complex, knowledge builds over time, and experience gives you the tools to make change that sticks and grows.

“Dangers lurk in all systems. Systems incorporate the unexamined beliefs of their creators. Adopt a system, accept its beliefs, and you help strengthen the resistance to change”

― Frank Herbert

Benefits of Disruptive Design

Making change is a state of being. When you are change-centric you easily find the purpose and values that set the tone for how you contribute through your life and work. We all have the power to affect positive change through everything we do. This change-centric approach is a cultivated one in which you have to work at wanting to make change. And change is not always easy, but there are massive benefits:

Learning to love your problems

When you avoid problems, you never truly understand them. By learning to love problems and choosing to see them as opportunities in disguise, you will develop an open mind that thinks differently. This is all about being curious and trying to understand something before you attempt to solve it! The more curiosity you can foster, the more things you will uncover about the world around you.

Identifying relationships

Everything is interconnected, and actions create reactions. Being able to see the relationships that make up cause and effect are part of any good problem solvers tool belt.

Shifting perspectives

The ability to see the world through other people’s eyes is critical to building resilience, empathy, and conscious leadership skills. By looking at things from a different point of view you learn to constantly reflect and explore the world from diverse perspectives. In this way, you can overcome biases and be able to put yourself in the shoes of others to understand why people think or behave differently to you based on their own life and learning experiences.

Collaboration

Respectfully and successfully working with others, despite differences, is critical to creativity and leadership skills. The goal is to encourage people to see that diversity in collaboration is just as important as agreement, and that coming to a consensus can be achieved in many different ways. 

“Most of the problems faced by humankind concern our inability to grasp and manage the increasingly complex systems of our world.”
― Peter M. Senge

7 Tools to Move From Insight to Intervention

An intervention is the act of intentionally seeking to shift the status quo of a scenario, situation or system. From a system’s perspective, not all interventions are good nor equal. When you try to make change in a dynamic, constantly evolving system, there will be push back. You can get to your desired outcome, but only within pathways the system allows. To maximise positive outcomes, we must first deeply understand what is really going on below the surface, at the systems level. All too often, we rush to solve a problem quickly in order to get the reward of success, not realising we are, in fact, swimming against the tide. Then, before we know it, the problem has popped up again in a new place or shape. This is why the Iceberg Model is so frequently used when applying systems thinking, as it reminds people to look at what’s under the surface.

  1. Embrace complexity

When we try to solve problems with the same thinking that led to them, we often end up where we started. In systems thinking, there is a saying: “The easy way out often leads back in.” This is often the case when well-intentioned change makers come along and apply a quick fix to a complex problem. It’s better to work with the complexity and chaos. This is where systems mapping, deep research, feedback loops, and archetypes really come into play. Once you understand the system, you can seek out non-obvious areas for intervention to shift the status quo in the system you are seeking to influence.

  1. Suspend the need to solve

Before you can ‘solve’ anything, you must first understand it. Our brains have the tendency to want the reward of fixing things. Think of the sales person who presents the solution before understanding the client’s needs. By suspending the need to solve during systems exploration, you keep more ideas open and in play. Keep your mind focused on the discoveries that uncover insights, not laying blame anywhere. Seek out these unique aspects of the system that emerge as a result of diving into the dynamics and feedback loops within it.

  1. Look for the non-obvious leverage points

Leverage points are the parts within a system that have the power to shift the status quo. They are usually not obvious at first, so you have to seek them out. For example, if you want to understand why educational scores are dropping in one school district, look at the feedback loops. Causality and flows will help to identify what parts of the system need to be shifted, and the leverage points could be the culture of the community, the lack of aspirational leadership, or even the facilities offered, instead of the obvious elements like the teachers or curriculum.

Discoveries are hard to explain until you have one yourself, so define a problem arena, do a systems map by identifying the nodes, connecting the relationships and then you can seek out insights from these non-obvious parts that are uncovered through systems exploration. These are the areas where you can start to design interventions. The cool thing about systems thinking is that once you start to think this way, you will quickly discover the secret elements of the system that you are trying to work within. You will be able to identify how minor shifts in the feedback of even the biggest systems can be enacted by the smallest intervention. Everyone can make change!

  1. Understand the level in which you are intervening

There are three main levels of systems at play in the world: social, industrial, and ecological. They all have different levels of materiality, social conventions and different types of complexity. When you design an intervention, you must understand what level you are playing at because it will affect the type of intervention you design. You can make a physical or relational (social) intervention. A physical intervention is something that has material and touchable qualities to it, in the physical world, whereas a relational intervention is more on the behavioural and social interaction level – it seeks to shift social conventions. These can be combined and interplay well together. For example, a cognitive experience that uses physical tools to help activate change.

Say you want to change the status quo of a workplace that has developed an unhealthy culture around gender relations (implicit biases are limiting diversity, for example). The intervention could be a physical tool that enables people to identify and work through biases. It could be a more subtle social shift that helps to change the dominant status quo or a tool that helps to do both. Essentially, identifying levels and types of interaction helps to direct the type of intervention you will design.

  1. Work within your sphere of influence

Many people avoid taking action to make positive change because they perceive that the opportunity for change is beyond their control, or outside their sphere of influence. To be successful at designing, implementing, and actioning positive systems change, you will need to start within your sphere of influence and work to expand it over time. We all have the capacity to have a positive influence on the world around us and systems thinking helps us create a road map to activating change.

People often point to government or education as the leverage points of change for worldly issues, but these are merely the obvious (tip of the iceberg) parts of the system. Considerable change can be made through the huge spectrum of actions that individuals, institutions, cities, communities, businesses and industries can make at other points via well-designed, appropriately-placed systems change.

  1. Account for delays

This one is a biggie – many systems have delays – the difference in time between the action and the desired outcome (or even the undesired outcome) becoming visible. Most of us have experienced the delay in feedback from separate hot and cold water taps. The time between the water temperature adjusting to our liking, and the rate of water flow can be painful in older buildings where the water must travel a long way in response to the adjustment. It’s hard to see what outcomes will happen in a complex system when you have delays in feedback. For example, if you design a health intervention for yourself, but don’t get immediate results, you may adjust what you are doing too quickly and end up pushing yourself too far. Cause and effect are not limited within time nor space which means it’s hard to see the outcomes of actions without some sort of mystical magical powers – you can’t be everywhere and see everything. With delays in systems relationships, you can misinterpret the impacts, outcomes, or causes of a phenomenon.

  1. Avoid unintended consequences

The road to Hell is paved with ‘good intentions’, which means good intentions don’t always lead to good outcomes. The more you think in systems, the more you realise that many systems interventions accidentally end up creating more problems by shifting the burden or focusing valuable energy and resources on the most obvious, least effective part of the system. In pre-empting the outcomes of your intervention it is critical to examine your conscious and unconscious biases. Think through the potential flows and feedbacks that could result, not just the ones you expect or particularly want, helps to avoid a nasty surprise.

“From an early age we are taught to break apart problems, to fragment the world. This apparently makes complex tasks and subjects more manageable, but we pay a hidden, enormous price. We can no longer see the consequences of our actions: we lose our intrinsic sense of connection to a larger whole.”

— Peter Senge

Systems Transformation

Society loves to develop and replicate structured and isolated ways of thinking, from the hypothesis-to-outcome structure of scientific investigations, through to the hyper-structured and inflexible departments of Government. We have designed systems of silos that do not connect to the bigger picture. These isolated systems butt against each other, creating rigid, linear perspectives of problems and limited approaches to solving them. Here’s the thing: problems never exist in isolation, they are always surrounded by other problems. The more you can comprehend the granulation and context of a problem, the greater your chances are of finding a truly effective solution. The good news is that undoing linear and rigid thinking is pretty easy. Embracing a systems approach will help you evolve problems into solutions.

A systems approach is an incredibly powerful thinking tool for addressing and working towards eradicating problems. Thankfully, humans naturally have a curious and intuitive understanding of complex, dynamic and interconnected systems that make up the world around us. So, it’s really not that hard to re-wire the thinking codes from linear to expanded, from 1-dimensional to 3-dimensional thinking. Doing so allows us to think through the problems we are trying to solve. If we really want to address the complex, chaotic, and incredibly urgent global social and environmental issues at play, we must overcome the reductionist perspective. Let’s build thinking and doing systems that work for all. Right now, there are no shortage of big complex messy social, political and environmental problems that need to be addressed. Taking a systems approach allows for a dynamic and intimate understanding of the elements and agents at play within the problem arena. Enabling us to identify opportunities for solutions.

“Emergence notices the way small actions and connections create complex systems, patterns that become ecosystems and societies.”

-Adrienne Maree Brown

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