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Simplifying Complexity or Complexifying Simplicity: The Promise and Perils of Systems Thinking

Craig Zelizer

June 22, 2017

As we’ve written this week the PCDN team has been fortunate to participate in the 33rd annual Interaction Forum (see our blogs page for a whole series of posts) where we documenting and writing about many of the discussions, innovations, and questions.

On the the second day of Forum, I attend a great session on systems thinking entitled, “What is Systems Thinking” Can it help us to respond better in complex environments?

The engaging session was organized by Leah Campbell, Senior Research Officer, ALNAP and Jim DiFrancesca, Director Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Risk Reduction, PCI.

Systems thinking is the rage these days. Many organizations in development, social change, social entrepreneurship, government and others are beginning to adopt or already using systems thinking as a concept, and set of tools to help develop a better understanding of complex systems, to identify potential leverage points for change and implement better solutions (often involve a series of pilots or experiments).

I’ve been to a number of system design sessions and workshops over the past few years, been speaking with some human centered design practitioners and have to admit that I love systems approaches, but also have some hesitations.

Systems thinking concepts can provide a wonderful set of analytical tools and applied processes to help individuals and organizations get beyond simple casual thinking. All too often social change or development work has tended to be seen as linear in nature. If we do this input (training, build a well, etc.) this will lead to x output and voila result achieved.

In reality interacting with humans in complex environments is much more complex and casual and linear approaches often ignore the many other variables (known and sometimes unknown) that can lead to positive or negative change.

Leah talked about her increasing study of the system thinking and I greatly appreciated how she framed our session as one of joint learning and exploration. She and Jim provided some background thinking and resources, but also had the audience go through some fun systems exercises, discussions and open questions/discussion.

One of the ways that I found help in explaining systems thinking is Leah cited the work of Karl Popper. She talked about the difference between clock and cloud problems. A clock problem is one that may involve complex mechanic s. However if one takes a clock apart it is still very possible to put the device back together and have the system return to smooth functioning.

A cloud problem is entirely different. It is a problem is that has much greater complexibility, unpredictability and more known and unknown factors that are not as easily controlled as in assembling a cloud. Even to think about it, can we actually take apart a cloud (hard to do) and then put it back together exactly as is? Moreover intervening in one part of a cloud problem, it isn't possible to adequately predict how this will affect all the other part s of the system. 

A system perspective is a way of thinking (and associated tools) that helps to deal with crowd problems. Leah (and the subsequent discussion confirmed this) stated that it can be challenging to find one definition. It is a broad concept that acknowledges the very dynamic relationship (or interconnectedness) of things.

Systems thinking has emerged from earlier fields such as engineering, biology.  Systems thinking is more than a technical solution to a particular problem. It looks at the larger set of relationships between the parts (not the parts themselves) and requires a long-term approach to change. A systems approach is almost like putting a pair of new glasses that enable one to see beyond the normal narrow frame or usual approach of seeing an issue. A new approach encompasses a much more holistic and dynamic approach, that doesn't view problems or actors as static in nature. A central point of system thinking is through this holistic approach one is more likely to find key points in the system that can be more effective in advancing change. 

Leah highlighted three key points in system thinking including
Using Leverage Points to Increase Impact
Stepping back, learning and adapting mental models (making sure to question one's own assumptions

and four simple rules (see the image below)

A key point Leah emphasized is that we need systems approaches as all to often we are stuck in one sector approach. Unless we can develop more holistic approaches than change is likely not going to be sustainable. No one program, effort or organization can solve a problem. Systems thinking does provide a valuable strategy to help best “engage with our messy world”, find the connections, and explore leverage points for change in a dynamic matter (see the wonderful work of Omidyar Network in this area).

A fundamental challenge with systems approaches to development is that traditionally many donors want clear log frames that show the change that will result. Moreover most funding is provided on a project basis and tends to be short-term in nature. It is hard to image for example a major bilateral donors putting significant resources in a system approach (although there is more experimentation going on).

A potential danger in a systems approach is that there is a risk of overjargonizing and getting lost in complex terminology, maps and paralysis by analysis.
One of the key themes that emerged from the discussion is that many people are starting to experiment with systems thinking but that it can be daunting or confusing to explain, operationalize or find common agreement. Does system thinking imply a rigorous and dynamic mapping of key actors, power relationships and other factors in a community (Yes)? But then how does systems thinking differ from a solid context analysis (still needs more explanation)? 
Does system thinking need to be dynamic (yes)? But how to do this when teams are often already overwhelmed with many, many demands (more exploration needed)? Does it require specific jargon or language (no)? But how do we then make sure the language and processes are accessible to all?
A key question is how do do we not overcomplexify complexity?

One of the questions that emerged that there wasn’t a clear answer to is does data exist to show if a project or team has used systems thinking in their work, compared to projects or teams that haven’t, what is the difference in terms of impact? Some organizations including PCI are beginning to do more systematic work on this.
Overall this was a wonderful and engaging session. It is clear that systems thinking is more than just a buzzword of the day. Adapting such approaches hold significant potential to lead to more impactful change. But we need to find ways to make the tools/language more accessible, to learn more about best practices and continue to build better systems.

Some key tools mentioned in the session include:

Acumen System Thinking Course

Waters Foundation 

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