Systems Thinking

Seeing challenges as an interconnected ecosystem

Systems thinking is the ability to make sense of connections.

Think of a rainstorm: everything from the formation of a cloud, to cloudburst, to rainfall and where the water travels. Think ecosystem, constellation, ripple effects.


In the nonprofit, NGO, and charity space, we know that today's issues are systemic, linked, and interwoven.

They know that what's obvious to the human eye is only a part of a chain reaction within a greater system of causes and effects: The tip of the iceberg. Even the smallest adjustment to a system can have radical consequences.

Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline had always talked about crafting the learning organization. One aspect is understanding systems: That everything in the world is connected, not just comprised of isolated and unrrelated forces. Teams are the key to macro-creativity, and understanding how their collective mission and aspirations are connected to the greater whole.

Think about how all the roles and departments in your organization are connected and how ideas and information flows. In the aid and development world, think about the effects when a sudden donation of "stuff" suddenly surged into that local economy. Who benefits and who loses?

Look for practitioners who can help you with these skills:

  • Sensing present and future problems
  • Translating facts into opportunities
  • Deciphering hidden trends and patterns
Most times it’s tough to capture the entire ecosystem when situations change all the time. That's why it's smart to have a repertoire of skills connected to lean startup principles like experimentation, trial and error, smart risk taking, and co-creative strategy.

Understanding systems requires practice in the art of inquiry: Personal and collective questioning as well as the courage to ask uncomfortable questions about the symptoms to get closer to the root causes.

Personal Skills to Learn

  • Asks multiple whys and how
  • Can piece together macro forces, trends, motivations, and seen and unseen influences and what it means for their mission
  • Can reframe their issues in multiple ways
  • Can think in metaphors and models and adapt those to their current thinking
  • Deconstruct and reconstruct pieces of a system or process, uncovering hidden parts not known before
  • Can sense trends and market forces and anticipate the potential impact on his or her organization’s future
  • Uses design research to blend both contextual knowledge and hands on experience to give themselves direct experience so they can immerse themselves and better understand the system in question

Collective skills to work up to:

  • Can deploy a co-creative straegic process at any given time
  • Can map out an organization's "system of challenges". Read the skylance entry on challenge mapping.
  • Applies these pattern recognition skills to organization-wide challenges and various unanticipated events
  • Cross-disciplinary teams to piece together systemic challenges together.

Fast Action Tips

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