Systems Thinking

Systems Thinking and Systems Thinking Playbook
We had 2 excellent programs in Sept. and Oct. 2016, on Systems Thinking and the Systems Thinking Playbook, with David Stroh and Linda Booth Sweeney respectively.   David is the author of "Systems Change for Social Change", and Linda is the co-author of the "Systems Thinking Playbook".

When trying to understand what's happening around a particular problem, David Stroh explained the limitations of looking at:
  • events (What happened?) 
  • trends (What's been happening?)
  • the underlying structure and the relationships between the different parts of the system, i.e. Why has that been happening?
One of the key learnings is best expressed by this participant's feedback: Systems are "designed" to produce the results that they are producing" - i.e. you can see why they’re getting those results when you look at the relationships between the different parts of the system.  He continued, “Systems, like people, are prone to playing predictable games (archetypes).  When you can identify these, you can free up the system snafu.  It's still a qualitative enterprise, therefore, careful reflection à correct appraisal/assessment - whereas Sloppy reflection à invalid appraisal à flawed intervention.”
David gave us a guiding question for using a Systems Thinking approach with a group trying to solve a problem:  "Why is it that despite our best efforts, we have been unable to solve this problem?"  What a useful question!  We learned how to use a few causal loop diagrams and some typical types of problems, called archetypes – such as “Fixes that Backfire” – for example: some hospital patients are sent home too early in order to cut costs, but they often have to be readmitted, which ends up costing more money. 

Creating causal loop diagrams is a skill that one needs to learn; but David explained that you don’t have to use those diagrams in a discovery conversation with a client group, where you can use a few basic questions (taken from his book):
  1. Why have we been unable to solve this problem despite our best efforts?
  2. How might we e partly responsible for the problem?
  3. What might be the unintended consequences of our previous (and proposed) solutions?
  4. What are the payoffs to us of the current system?
  5. What might we have to give up for the whole to succeed?
Key Takeaways from David’s session:
  1. Some "aha" moments of how I'll be better able to explain to clients the consequences of choosing "the quick fixes versus long-term solutions" i.e. using systems thinking.
  2. Emotion is wrapped up in systems thinking. Introducing change is not easy. Try to make the client come up with the answer. The process needs commitment. A quick success is better than a quick fix. A quick fix may suppress the problem but it is still there. Make the quick fix interrelated to the solution.
  3. The value of reinforcing and balancing feedback loops. Structure is a better predictor than trends.
  4. Some "aha" moments of how I'll better be able to explain to clients the consequences of choosing "the quick fixes versus long-term solutions" i.e. using systems thinking.
Linda Booth Sweeney had us perform some of the exercises from the Systems Thinking Playbook.  Without giving too much away (smile) because you’ll want to discover these for yourself -  in Circles in the Air, we discovered that our perspective often depends on where we sit – and the lesson is that “changing our vantage point may help us discover new leverage points into complex systems.”  In the “arms like an airplane” exercise, we saw how treating our body as a system enables us to accomplish more than when we treat things as individual, unrelated parts.  Linda certainly energized us to learn more of these exercises!  We are thinking of a follow-up lab where we can practice facilitating other exercises in the Playbook.
Key Takeaways from Linda’s session:
  1. There was so much actionable content - the holy grail of learning programs!
  2. The benefits of systems thinking were well articulated with great metaphoric examples.
  3. Great icebreakers and thoughtful activities to help my clients shift their perspectives.
  4. You can demonstrate a dynamic system from moving from straight line to circle.
  5. The value of having an "intention" for running an icebreaker – i.e. doing an icebreaker to get people to think differently, as opposed to just having a fun social intention.   
  6. The need for gradual but active introduction of Systems Thinking to stakeholders.
So, lots of exercises and ideas for us to take back to our organizations and clients!  We'd love to hear how it goes when you try out these exercises.