Metal models make easy to get stuck in a linear, analysis driven, siloed approach to change, Some problems can be resolved with a straightforward action, but many tend to be complex, dynamic challenges that have a web of interconnected elements.
That’s really where systems thinking comes into play. A system is any group of interacting, interrelated, or interdependent parts that form a complex and unified whole that has a specific purpose. The key thing to remember is that all the parts are inter-related and interdependent in some way. Without such inter-dependencies, we have just a collection of parts, not a system.
And systems thinking is about recognizing that the big picture is rarely static and that there is almost always a web of factors that interact to create patterns and change over time. Systems thinking provides a way of seeing, analyzing, and acting.
Daniela Papi-Thorton, an social change advocate and educator at Oxford University, wrote “Action without learning is ignorance. Learning without action is selfishness”
Systems thinking is designed around learning, rather than immediate action, it is designed to be learning for the sake of more informed future action.
What does it look like in practice. Systems practice is can be divided into four phases or tasks:
- Listening to the system to appreciate how it currently operates
- Develop a shared understanding of what’s important
- Acknowledge that our interpretations are always projected through the lens of our values.
- Engaging the system to prompt change,
- What about the system isn’t working?
- What about the system is working the?
- How we should make changes?
- We design interactions that produce desired results
- Discovering the actual effects of those interventions on the system
- Awareness-we open our eyes to new a possibly surprising information
- We also should anticipate the possibility that our actions may result in at least some unanticipated consequences
- Adapting interventions in response to discoveries to promote interactions that yield improved results.
- Focus is an important aspect of this phase. You may not be able to adjust everything.
- Where should we direct our attention? Where are the opportunities for the highest impact?
A few weeks ago, I had an amazing opportunity to share these ideas as I facilitated a 2-day summer retreat for my executive director and our cabinet. This is the beginning of shift toward a systemic approach for the organization. It was exciting and rewarding to be able to directly apply one of the concepts I learned in class to such an important part of our strategic planning process. After the retreat, my executive director asked if I’d like to stay on and participate in the development of the organizational goals for the 2020-2021 school year. I, of course, said, “YES!”
Cubista, Daniela Papi-Thornton & Joshua, and Joshua Cubista is the founding dean of the Social Innovation Institute in Toronto. “Systems Change in Social Innovation Education (SSIR).” Stanford Social Innovation Review: Informing and Inspiring Leaders of Social Change, ssir.org/articles/entry/systems_change_in_social_innovation_education.
“A Group Process for Systems Thinking.” The Systems Thinker, 19 Nov. 2015, thesystemsthinker.com/a-group-process-for-systems-thinking/.