A Rich Picture to Reframe My Systems Approach

Stepping into the unknown with many colorful pens to explore a rich picture.

It’s easy to see things from the systems perspective when you can remove yourself from the hustle and bustle of your daily life and address the problem squarely with your systems thinking cap on. . . or so I thought! A deep dive into a rich picture helped me more clearly see the obstacles holding me back and to ultimately reframe my systems approach.

Full disclosure: my least favorite tool is the rich picture. As you will see, I clearly lack artistic skills, and I’m way more comfortable with words. Still, I’m the kind who leans in to things I don’t like, and I’ll keep trying until I can figure out what I’m supposed to learn. So, what better tool to help me think through my recent journey in systems thinking than the one I like least? Onward with the rich picture!

Flying home from NYC and settling into life on the farm and work at the Climate + Energy Project.

After four long, challenging, and inspiring days in New York City at the Forum for the Future School of Systems Change Basecamp Americas, I happily flew back home to my family. I rested for two days on the farm, surrounded by the pleasant and comforting sounds of our donkey and sheep and the soothing cacophony of nature before launching fully back into my role as Assistant Director of the Climate + Energy Project (CEP). I love my work, but the pace is fast and the challenges a-plenty.

The whirlwind of life catches up to me.

I found myself faced — as usual — with the daunting challenge of how to integrate all the new learning into my real life back home. With all eyes on me, questions lingering from my time away, and a stack of unread emails two miles high, how easily I fell right back into the whirlwind of life. There was a pressure (real or perceived) for me to magically transform problems into solutions via the handy-dandy systems thinking tools I’d learned at the School of Systems Change. Additionally, CEP was serving as a fieldwork host for four amazing systems thinking practitioners, my peers from the school. I felt an enormous pressure to represent CEP’s needs as the fieldwork host, to effectively liaise between CEP and the team, and to create a really stellar project, all while learning a new approach to our work. I felt pulled in a million different directions, and it would have been so easy to just forge on with the tools I knew worked and occasionally come back to systems thinking when I had time.

Working through the process with my fieldwork team.

The upside of the fieldwork project was that it required me to set aside at least one hour of my work week to discuss our challenge with my team. I had to prepare and do work in between calls, which kept the ideas fresh in mind, and the team approach helped keep me engaged and experimenting with the tools. Collectively, we had great ideas that led to more questions and new ideas that led to more questions, and round and round we went with yesses and no’s and I thinks and therefores. Each week working to see each other’s different visions of the best way to map a complex system and trying to find a common approach that we could utilize for our fieldwork. Seeing CEP’s work through the eyes of others gave us great insights into the system in which we work. I took the questions back to my executive director and our staff and board, which prompted many interesting conversations bouncing around the new approaches and perspectives gained through the collaboration.

Yes! We have a plan.

Ultimately, as a group, we weathered the challenges of scheduling across three timezones, Zoom meeting technology, and busy work schedules to emerge with a clear view of what we could do together. We checked off the boxes, felt good about our progress, and went back to the drawing board to finalize our drafts for the designer.

Framing the questions…?

Around this same time, I was helping a colleague design a workshop on framing questions for the long-awaited Re-Amp Equitable Deep Decarbonization Summit. I suggested this and that and the other before she finally said, “I just need you to facilitate this workshop.” Gulp. OK. I’m a confident public speaker, sure, but I like to have things pretty well lined out for my presentations. Facilitating this session as I had recommended (repeatedly) to my colleague would put me well out of my comfort zone, in a situation where people might absolutely hate the workshop or simply not get the point. Either way, the anxiety was high, but again I leaned into that discomfort, took a deep breath, and went for it: facilitating a conversation of questions similar to what we experienced at Basecamp. One person is in the “thought seat” paired up with two other questioners. The three have a conversation only using questions. No declaratives, interjections, nothing but questions. One person took notes, the fifth kept time and observed.

Moving from discomfort through exploration and finally to stability.

As the group erupted into question after question around what brought them to work on equitable deep decarbonization, I noticed that while everyone was uncomfortable, and I did hear some grumbles, there were also deep silences, heartfelt laughter, and incredibly thoughtful questions. I realized that while sometimes you need to separate yourself from the system, or put on your systems thinking cap to consult with your team on the question at hand, other times you need to throw yourself into the discomfort zone with everyone else to create a common purpose and shared vision. Throughout the workshop, I saw people move from the initial discomfort through exploration and finally to some stability. Stability in terms of why we were doing the work and the enormity of the problems, but also that we were all part of something much larger than our individual parts and perspectives.

When I sat down to write this reflection, I easily drafted out a clear articulation of the things I learned. I had clever wording and some bullet points to flesh out, but somewhere in the flow, I realized it wasn’t quite right. I turned to the rich picture to see if anything new would emerge. In so doing, I saw gaps and opportunities, and even a pretty clear path forward to help me continue to integrate systems thinking and tools into my daily life.

I ❤ Mapping.

Each morning, before being sucked into emails, I’m going to draw out a quick map of whatever I plan to work on that day, be it overall strategy, fundraising, or big dreams. Carving out that time each day will help me continue to stretch my systems thinking brainspace and also provide some useful reflections for our work. All good things, but I also love how I feel when I get lost in drafting a map, demonstrated by the heart shaped system.

Chill out, girl.

In the same vein, I’m going to work to lower my stress level around all of this. I’ll reduce the pressure I’m putting on myself to understand everything and be some magical systems thinking wizard. I’m going to take it down a notch and focus on learning.

Adapt to the flow.

I’m going to adapt to the flow of the big idea, problem statement, and questions. I’ll try to loosen up about all of that to be more open to the insights that come from curiosity and different ideas. I won’t settle for the first idea or frame that emerges, but will continue to question and reframe until clarity comes, and then I’ll come back to that question again.

Moderating the expectations.

I’m going to moderate the pressures (real or perceived) I feel from others that I need to be an expert in systems change. In reality, I hope to continuously learn and improve these skills; there is no end point where I’ll call it “good,” only a long chain of “what else?” “what’s next?” and “what’s missing?”

Stabilizing expectations and leveraging potential.

I’m going to stabilize my own expectations, understanding that applying new skills is a balance and learning is a lifelong pursuit. Sometimes I’ll be up, other times I’ll be down, but if I can step back a pace or two, I’ll see that up or down, I’m still working on a point of leverage with limitless potential.

Putting (many colorful pens) to paper to challenge myself to draw out a rich picture of my journey helped illuminate things that I had not even had time to process yet. Perhaps therein lies the beauty of the rich picture: using different parts of your brain, stretching different thinking muscles, and stepping off into the unknown to free yourself of your own perceptions and see the system in a unique way.

The rich picture in all its glory.
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