Great New Guide to ‘Systems Thinking and Practice’

February 8, 2023

     By Duncan Green     

I’m always on the lookout for good guides to the practical implications of systems thinking, so got very excited when I came across Systems Thinking and Practice: A guide to concepts, principles and tools for FCDO and partners, by Jim Woodhill and Juliet Millican. Its 38 pages are stuffed full of crisp summaries of the main ideas, case studies applying them to the practical business of aid and development, and enough reading to keep you busy for a year. Bravo.

It’s also interesting to see that the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is taking the issue so seriously – in the intro, two Whitehall mandarins stress the importance of a ‘systems approach to development and diplomacy’. 400 FCDO civil servants took the course on which the guide is based. Blimey.

Do please read it for yourselves, but here’s a couple of sections that stood out for me:

Organisational behaviours for putting systems thinking into practice

How do you know if systems thinking is being applied?

1 Viewing situations holistically – The starting point for systems thinking is to step back and take a ‘helicopter’ view of the situation you are dealing with. Try to explore, examine and tackle underlying causes of problems not just symptoms. This means working across different sectors and disciplines, and paying attention to the wider context in which your specific concerns or responsibilities are set. Given the types of issues and contexts in which FCDO engages, developing a good political economic understanding is usually a critical starting point.

2 Bringing multiple perspectives to the table – By definition, we are all limited by our experiences, training, interests and mindsets. A key to systems thinking is opening dialogue between people with different perspectives and insights. How do they see the issues they face? What are their views on how systems are functioning or not? What would constitute an improvement for them? Such dialogue includes bringing in people with different disciplinary and sector expertise, and enabling engagement between players from across government, business, civil society and science.

3 Considering alternative future scenarios – Explore how trends, uncertainties and shocks might create radically different futures, and what the implications would be for different stakeholders’ interests. Engage stakeholders in assessing what would be effective strategies for their interests, and for the system as a whole in different future scenarios. Scenario approaches are valuable in helping to understand the resilience of systems to future pressures and shocks.

4 Strengthening networks, feedback and relationships – Systems evolve and adapt based on networks and feedback between system components. A basic principle of systems practice is to increase communication and understanding between actors. Think about how relationships between different parts of a system can be improved, including through building trust between actors.

5 Designing interventions around system dynamics – ‘Engineering’ top-down change in human systems is largely impossible – so don’t try! Instead, explore how systems can be ‘nudged’ towards more desirable states. Look at how desirable behaviours can be amplified and less desirable ones can be dampened, and the roles that normative and punitive incentives might play. Accept that change often requires many contributing factors to align. How and when this will occur can’t be easily predicted, so patience is often needed while working on enabling conditions. Systems have stability and tipping points – try to understand these and how they can be used to support rather than block desired changes.

6 Experimenting, valuing failure and learning – Fundamental to bringing about change in complex systems is experimentation and rapid learning. This requires an appetite for risk and valuing the learning that can come from failure. As with investments, this implies that development organisations need to take risks and assess performance across the whole portfolio, rather than expecting every project or intervention to succeed.

7 Managing adaptively – Ultimately, responding to the complexity and uncertainty of how complex systems behave requires a highly adaptive approach to management and decision-making. This calls for good communication up and down management hierarchies, decentralised responsibility, and empowering those on the ‘front line’ to be responsive and questioning as situations change.’

And some new-ish stuff (for me) on ‘transitions’

Thinking about socio-technical transitions

Throughout human history we see a constant transitioning from one socio-technical dynamic to another. Think of the transition from horse and cart to the internal combustion engine, the ending of slavery, the current transition from fossil fuels to renewables or changing gender roles. Understanding how transition processes occur and integrating this with systems thinking offers the potential to intervene in ways that can direct and speed up desirable transitions, and dampen less desirable ones.

As illustrated above, transition theory describes how a regime of markets, science, culture, technology, policy and industry becomes ‘locked in’, with particular groups benefiting from this regime and using their power to maintain it. However, over time this regime will start to become incoherent, amid a changing landscape of environmental and social factors (e.g., it is becoming clear that the fossil fuel energy sector is incoherent with a stable climate; this incoherence is increasingly being acknowledged and triggering change). At the same time, niche innovations are always occurring, which over time can coalesce and scale, resulting in disruption of the existing regime. This two-way pressure on the regime, from a changing context and niche innovations, causes the regime to evolve and a new configuration to emerge.

From a policy, advocacy or activist perspective there are four key ways to think about intervening to nudge change:

1 Help to make apparent and explicit to a wide range of actors the emerging disconnect between the existing regime and the social and environmental landscape. This includes making clear how this disconnect threatens the longer-term interests of particular groups and society at large. This occurs, for example, through focused research, public education, effective use of media or processes of stakeholder dialogue. Foresight and scenario analyses can be a valuable way of enabling stakeholders to understand the long-term consequences of the negative features of the current system or regime for their interests.

2 Invest in and support a diverse range of innovations (hedging), even though the success of any single innovation cannot be guaranteed. Accepting failure is necessary!

3 Support processes that identify, coalesce and scale innovations that can help to demonstrate desirable and feasible alternatives to the existing regime, and contribute to disrupting it.

4 Foster processes explicitly designed to disrupt the existing regime and shift power balances such as coalitions for change, active civil society groups, critical journalism, or co-opt leaders of different groups who can be respected champions for change.’

The final section is a really handy annotated guide to the bewildering number of systems-related ‘toolkits’. Great stuff. Alas, just too late for last week’s systems thinking lecture to my LSE activism class, but definitely going on the reading list for next year.

February 8, 2023
Duncan Green