Tools for Systems Thinkers: 7 Steps to Move from Insights to Interventions

In the previous four chapters of this series, I discussed the different concepts, approaches, and tools for activating systems thinking. Now it’s time to start pulling those parts together. In this chapter, I outline seven steps you can take to move from systems exploration to a practice of systems interventions*.

An intervention is the act of intentionally seeking to shift the status quo of a scenario, situation or system. From a system’s perspective, not all interventions are good nor equal. When you try to make change in a dynamic, constantly evolving system, there will be push back. You can get your desired outcome, but along with what the system wants to do. I have crafted these seven steps to help you tackle systems intervention design in a way that avoids unintended consequences, and can maximize the positive outcomes.

In order to shift the status quo of a problem arena, we must first deeply understand what is going on below the surface, at the systems level. All too often, we rush to solve in order to get the reward of success — and before we know it, the problem has popped up again, perhaps in a new place or shape.

That’s why systems interventions must be based on a systemic understanding of what’s going on. You will never know everything, but the energy invested in the mining phase to develop insights will pay off when you begin designing interventions based on discovering non-obvious parts of the system.

The Iceberg Model

Applying the tools that we have gone through in the previous chapters in this series is a great start on delving deeper into problem sets. This is why the Iceberg Model is so frequently used when applying systems thinking, as it reminds people to look at what’s under the surface.

Let’s take a look at the seven steps of insight to intervention:

1. Embrace the complexity

When we try to solve problems with the same thinking that led to them in the beginning, we often end up where we started. In systems thinking, there is a saying: “The easy way out often leads back in.” This is often the case when well-intentioned intervenors come along and apply a quick fix to a complex problem. You have to work with the complexity and chaos.

This is where systems mapping, deep research, feedback loops, and archetypes really come into play. Once you understand the system, you can seek out non-obvious areas for intervention to shift the status quo in the system you are seeking to influence.

2. Suspend the need to solve

Before you can ‘solve’ anything, you must first understand it. Our brains have the tendency to want the reward of fixing things. This is a great cognitive trait, but it can limit and cloud the curiosity mindset that will help uncover the dynamics and hidden secrets of a system.

By suspending the need to solve for the duration of your systems exploration, you don’t shut down ideas — you simply acknowledge and put them aside. You can do this by literally having an ideas board you pop things up on until later.

Keep your mind focused on the discoveries that uncover insights, not laying blame anywhere. Seek out these unique aspects of the system that emerge as a result of diving into the dynamics and feedbacks within it.

3. Look for the non-obvious leverage points

Leverage points are the parts within a system that have the power to shift the status quo. They are usually not obvious at first sight — you have to seek them out.

For example, if you want to understand why educational scores are dropping in one school district, look at the feedback loops. Causality and flows will help to identify what parts of the system need to be shifted, and the leverage points could be the culture of the community, the lack of aspirational leadership, or even the food served, instead of the obvious elements like the teachers or curriculum.

This is a simple steps process that I take to design a systems intervention

Discoveries are hard to explain until you have one yourself, so define a problem arena, do a systems map by identifying the nodes, connecting the relationships and then you can seek out insights from these non-obvious parts that are uncovered through systems exploration. These are the areas where you can start to design interventions.

The cool thing about systems thinking is that once you start to think this way, you will quickly discover the secret elements of the system that you are trying to work within. You will be able to identify how minor shifts in the feedbacks of even the biggest systems can be enacted by the smallest intervention. So yeah, everyone can make change!

4. Understand the level you are intervening at

There are three main levels of systems at play in the world: social, industrial, and ecological. They all have different levels of materiality, social conventions and different types of complexity. When you design an intervention, you have to understand what level you are playing at as it will effect the type of intervention you design.

You can make a physical or relational (social) intervention. A physical intervention is something that has material and touchable qualities to it, in the physical world, whereas a relational intervention is more on the behavioral and social interaction level — it seeks to shift social conventions. These can be combined and interplay well together. For example, I design cognitive experiences that use physical tools to help activate change.

Say you want to change the status quo of a workplace that has developed an unhealthy culture around gender relations (implicit biases are limiting diversity, for example). The intervention could be a physical tool that enables people to identify and work through biases, it could be a more subtle social shift that helps to change the dominant status quo, or a tool that helps to do both.

Essentially, identifying levels and types of interaction helps to direct the type of intervention you will design.

5. Work within your sphere of influence

Many people avoid taking action to make positive change because they perceive that the opportunity for change is beyond their control, or outside their “sphere of influence” (the space that you can influence through your immediate and available resources).

To be successful at designing, implementing, and actioning positive systems change, you should always start within your sphere of influence to help expand it over time, and to be more effective with whatever resources you have available (no matter how small they are). We all have the capacity to have a positive influence on the world around us and systems thinking helps us create a road map to activating change.

People often point to government or education as the leverage points of change for worldly issues, but these are the obvious (tip of the iceberg) parts of the system. Considerable change can be made through the huge spectrum of actions that individuals, institutions, cities, communities, businesses and industries can make at other points via well-designed, appropriately-placed systems change.

6. Account for delays

Many systems have delays, which is the difference in time between the action and the desired outcome, or even the undesired outcome becoming visible.

Most of us have experienced as the delay in feedback from separate hot and cold water taps. The time between the water temperature adjusting to our liking, and the rate of water flow can be painful in older buildings where it has to travel a long way in response to the adjustment.

It’s hard to see what outcomes will happen in a complex system when you have delays in feedback. For example, if you design a health intervention for yourself, but don’t get immediate results, you may adjust what you are doing too quickly and end up pushing yourself too far.

One of the great lines from Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline is something to the effect of ‘cause and effect are not related in time nor space’, meaning there are often time or geographic gaps in identifying cause and effect. It’s hard to see the outcomes of actions without some sort of mystical magical powers — you can’t be everywhere and see everything. With delays in systems relationships, you can misinterpret the impacts, outcomes, or causes of a phenomenon.

7. Avoid unintended consequences

Good intentions don’t always lead to good outcomes. The more you think in systems, the more you realize that many systems interventions accidentally end up creating more problems by shifting the burden or focusing valuable energy and resources on the most obvious, least effective part of the system.

Pre-empting the outcomes of your intervention is critical to avoiding unintended consequences. Thinking through the potential flows and feedbacks that could result is one way to help avoid a nasty surprise.

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If you are really into this and want to learn more, Donella Meadows did a fantastic job of outlining points of systems interventions in her article on leverage and systems interventions. I also recently discovered this great Medium post summarizing them all by Daniel Christian Wahl.

*This is of course way more complicated then 7 steps, but these are great starting points. They will help you develop a practice, which is what is critical, starting to develop a way of engaging with complex systems. I developed the Disruptive Design Method to (which we teach through the UnSchool) to help advance this type of advanced thinking and doing. You can take a class online or come to one of our face-to-face programs.

In the last chapter of this 6 part series, Tools for Systems Thinkers, I will wrap up with an action list of ways to make positive change through systems thinking and cover a few other key concepts.

Read the last few chapters:

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

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