How models simultaneously enable and constrain our ability to think and work systemically?
Many of us have been reflecting for a while on the type of impact we want to have on the world around us, and the recent pandemic has just amplified and accelerated this quest for purpose.
Around me, more and more people from all walks of life feel — at a deep level — that our current systems are exhausted and that something new wants to emerge, which is prompting the question of our individual roles and contributions to these upcoming shifts. Depending on how you frame the question, it can easily become daunting…
What do we need to get right this time to avoid collapse? How can we upcreate the systems that are at odds with the people they aim to serve? What radical responsibility for change should I personally take?
Those questions are too vast and too complex to be considered linearly and on our own. We need models, methodologies and tools to facilitate a holistic exploration of the system and of the inter-dependencies between its components.
Several researchers or organisations have made attempts at developing such models to democratise and facilitate system thinking. Some of these models are merely mapping a number of key interdependent components, without articulating them together — for example the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) or the WBCSD’s Action 2020 framework with its 9 priority areas — and some are attempting to represent the system’s dynamic between those components — like for example the Doughnut model.
A model is a representation of reality that is both clear enough for us to identify with, and abstract enough to avoid limiting our impression of that reality. They are invaluable for helping us make sense of and navigating complexity, uncovering new insights, thinking, detecting patterns, creating connections, and differentiating ideas and notions.
All models are wrong but some of them are useful. (P.O. Box)
As useful as they may be, models are only a slice of reality and by nature, they are incomplete and biased. When you develop a model, you convene a number of assumptions and beliefs about the world as you know it. No matter how much effort you put to bring objectivity into your work, your model will always reflect the current conditions in some way. Consequently, using model is enabling but will inevitably influence — and in the worst-case limit — your thinking, especially if you are considering a shift in paradigm.
Consider for example the 17 SDGs from the United Nations. They offer a very comprehensive framework of the core considerations that should inform organisational strategies and public policies. Nevertheless, those 17 goals take a number of systemic assumptions for granted: national sovereignty, economical growth, global trade, etc. As a result, the model may limit your ability to uncover insights about more fundamental shifts that would truly transform the current paradigm and unlock new possibilities when considering poverty, hunger, education or any of the other 14 goals.
More prosaically, in a business context, we are often using models and frameworks that encourage linear thinking. Consider the famous SWOT — Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats — that still provides key input to many strategic planning processes… nothing about this model facilitates disruptive thinking ; if used as a standalone, it can only surface incremental ideas.
As we undertake transformative work — personally or professionally — the challenge is twofold:
1. Consider the current set of models and tools supporting your work and the extent to which they ground you into your current ways of thinking, being and interacting. More often than not, I find that organisations need to refresh their body of knowledge to unlock new potential.
2. As you curate new models, methodologies or tools, be mindful of the inherent biases or limitations that they carry. It is not to say that you should discard them — none of them are perfect anyway — but being aware of their influence on your ability to transform systems is the first step to expanding your thinking even beyond what the model is designed to allow you to do.
Any craftsman will place infinite care in finding and maintaining the optimum tools for their craft. Transformation is not different. Which are the tools that support your craft? Have you ever considered what they enable you to do or not do? Did you pause to reflect on how they make you feel? How often do you curate new tools that could take your practice to a new level?