Don the systems hat & do the dance: first lessons from system change school

We were somewhere around our eleventh cup of tea in one day when the realisation we were in England began to take hold.

  1. Systems are a dance, where we identify and mingle with all parts interconnected at micro levels as they interact together over time;
  2. A system performs a transition. Change as part of transition is not linear, instead happening in waves, and within emerging contexts;
  3. We must stop thinking of things in terms of separateness. Nurturing relationships and communities helps with addressing this;
  4. Systems thinkers choose to don the hat and “be the systems person”; the road is challenging, frustrating and often long, but worthy;
  5. Systems thinking is for life; once you see how things are interconnected, you can’t unsee them. Things are also messy, squiggly and unpredictable, just to add to the fun.

I’ve been back one week from four vigorous days of learning at the School of System Change Basecamp #5, run by the London-based Forum for the Future.

20 keen learners from 14 countries got together for the first time at Body & Soul Charity to learn systems change strategies that will influence our projects, organisations and lives. Linked by a desire to drive positive social and community change, our professional stories couldn’t vary more — our cohort includes a sustainable food transitions systems consultant, a geologist communicating climate change science to the investment community, a sustainability manager for luxury brands, a change agent advocating for the needs of vulnerable children, and the head of design programs at a social change-focused network with a 260+ year thought leadership legacy.

Happy basecampers!

We were challenged to embrace complexity, become futures thinkers, and grow comfortable doing the systems dance — things not easily mastered in a matter of days.

Doing the systems dance. Cups of tea kicking in differently for everyone. Photo: Afton Halloran.

After a few real ales, it was comforting to learn most of us were also there to address two pressing concerns: “how did I get here + wth am I getting myself into with this system change business?”

Fortunately we had six expert systems and futures thinkers guide us through the twists and turns of system change basics, while also setting a cracking pace for the beginning of our shared six-month learning journey.

Five moments stood out for me:

Interconnectedness happens across many systems and spheres — economic, environmental and social.

Thinking about the theory of system change via the story of rock and roll was also very personally enjoyable #nicemotiongfx

#2. How the clear and thorough walkthrough of the Three Horizons model for taking a systemic approach to developing visions of the future by highly respected futurist and author Bill Sharpe of the International Futures Forum had everyone in the room immediately thinking about its application in their own project work. Main points I took from Bill:

  • Typically we’re in a mindset, of which there are three key types: management (H1s), entrepreneurs (H2s), and visionaries (H3s). All have differing visions. Deciding who to involve and at what time directly drives outcomes.
  • Patterns are what we are interested in; stop and look at what is around you. Take photos and notes. If the system causes stress in you, recognise this, sit with it, and question why this is, as a signal of something to pay attention to.
  • Pattern is a more digestable word, compared to system, when working with stakeholders.

“System as a word is technocratic. Say this word and you’ll lose 50% of people in the room.” — Bill Sharpe.

Question what is around you. How did it come into being? What’s configuring around it? What story brought about flows that brought it into being?

#3. Making sense of transition dynamics and multi-level perspective (MLP) on transitions with Chris Roorda of DRIFT, through his sharing of the Leefstraat Ghent (“Living Street”) project, a temporary social laboratory-style experiment to create a car-free neighbourhood to influence thinking mobility and spatial planning, which is now embedded in municipal policy. Chris emphasised how transitions involve a process of structural, non-linear systemic and irreversible change within dominant culture, structure and practices.

“Citizens can visualize the future by creating their dream street. Civil servants can support the creativity of the citizens thanks to their expertise. Politicians can give energy to innovative ideas just by ‘not making these ideas impossible’, and entrepreneurs can see Living Streets as a real social laboratory to test new ideas.” —The Living Street project.

The multi-level perspective (MLP) of transition proposes three levels: landscape (slower external change-influencing systems), regime (the practices of a given system) and niche (alternate levels of doing, or radical innovations).

#4. Complexity theory specialist and ‘lapsed physicist’ Jean Boulton breaking down the complexity of complexity theory (very meta) to “a dance between patterns and events”.

“It’s easily to be beguiled by stable patterns. We need to look for roots of change.” — Jean Boulton.

Jean spoke of applying a complexity worldview, and looking at things with a micro and macro lense; look smaller → look bigger. Jean also clarified the difference between complexity and complicatedness:

Complexity = characterised by a nature of change. We know some things but not everything.

Complicatedness = it doesn’t change. For example the London Underground.

The iceberg rises again! Image credit: Jean Boulton.

#5. Systems mapping theory and practice with Rupesh Shah of the Open University, who rounded off learnings of previous days with three summary points on systems thinking:

  1. System = collection of parts that are seen by someone as interacting together to do something
  2. Systems thinking is about things interacting together and over time — involving escalation & dynamic patterns
  3. A system performs a transition. The perspective on the system is important to understanding this. E.g. a hot water system = a system to heat water.

Rupesh also walked us through different levels of system mapping, from high level ecosystems, to multiple cause diagrams, to sign diagrams. Three major points which I’ve immediately brought back into my projects:

  1. System maps are not about looking for solutions — they are for looking at the system now;
  2. Don’t get attached to one methodology or toolkit; take a bricolage approach;
  3. The diagram is never finished!

“People think you have to make a beautiful map. (The reality is) it’s ‘dead’ once you’re finished with it.” — Rupesh Shah.

So I learned all that (and a lot more) in four days. What’s next?

I’m working with a fantastic crew hailing from the UK, Germany and the Kyrgyz Republic, and our challenge is to tackle the systemic challenges facing the Bosch Alumni Network, who are seeking to decentralise operations from their Berlin headquarters to promote self-organisation and unlock the potential of local alumni knowledge and community networks. Our working title and purpose is Connecting Alumni: fostering better alumni connections through deepened sharing and improved-self organisation.

Part of our challenge will be to work across multiple timezones on a complex problem, but that’s all the part of the fun, innit.

The Connecting Alumni crew! L-R: Azis (Kyrgyz Republic), Nerys (UK), Rebecca (UK), me (Australia), Sarah (Germany), Ana (Germany).

Until next time!

School of System Change

We are equipping people with the capabilities to lead system change initiatives addressing complex sustainability challenges. The School offers flexible access to the best learning experiences, tools, case studies from the field, while growing the community of practice.

Kate Goodwin

Written by

Strategic Designer & Researcher at Paper Giant working with community legal & health, public & private sectors. On a 6 month systems change learning journey.

School of System Change

We are equipping people with the capabilities to lead system change initiatives addressing complex sustainability challenges. The School offers flexible access to the best learning experiences, tools, case studies from the field, while growing the community of practice.