Systems Thinking in Design: Shifting Our Mindset
Systems Thinking is not a new field, it has been around since the 1950s, long before the hype of Design Thinking. But somehow it is rarely talked about in the design field, at least amongst our peers. However, it does not mean we have not practiced it at all. We have probably practiced Systems Thinking in some of our work unconsciously, or rather, accidentally. Having a framework, tools, and mindset can help us to have more awareness and structure in practicing systems thinking at our work.
Systems Thinking Mindset
Here are 6 important mindsets in systems thinking:
- See the whole picture rather than parts in isolation
- Look for relationships among different parts of the system
- Practice zooming in and zooming out to see different perspectives
- Embrace complexity and value progress over perfection
- See new leverage points rather than fixate on where the problem arises
- Consider unintended consequences that may arise from an intervention
Start applying this mindset to our current work
When we talk about systems thinking or systemic design, the concept feels so grand that it may feel like we are trying to bite more than we can chew. Systems thinking gives a lot of promise in solving (and dissolving) complex problems. Systems design work indeed takes a lot of work and often takes a very long time too to see the impacts.
So instead, let’s take it step by step, and apply the mindset to the problem we have at hand, rather than being too ambitious in changing the whole system. For example, as a product designer, start by acknowledging that the product we are designing for has interrelated relationships with other products or services in the system, that the users are not the only stakeholders involved, and that what we design can have unintended consequences. Just by doing so, see how our perspectives have changed the way we approach the problem and potentially find better solutions for them.
Be cautious of analysis paralysis
Thinking in systems can be overwhelming. Because everything in this world can be interconnected, it is very easy to get trapped in a rabbit hole in an attempt to map a system and to understand its dynamics. This is perhaps why systems thinking has relatively slow in gaining popularity in practical industry work, compared to the design thinking movement. It is easy to get stuck in the theoretical framework rather than just take the steps to apply it to work.
So instead of getting stuck in the analysis paralysis, let’s:
- Appreciate that the system work is never going to be perfect. Take the leap of faith to apply them albeit through small steps. Prioritize progress over perfection.
- Practice to create boundaries of the system that we are looking at. Not too big that it overwhelms us, not too small that it constrains our perspectives. This will create a stopping point as to what extent we can consider our discovery work enough, as opposed to a never-ending process.
Designers as facilitators
As systems are inherently complex, it is impossible for a person to see and change them alone. The parable of The Blind Men and The Elephant tells the story of blind men who examine one part of an elephant and each come to very different conclusions on what an elephant is. They are all partly right, but also all entirely wrong. Similarly, understanding a system requires a collaborative effort from different stakeholders, who have different perspectives and various points of view.
We are in the era of transitioning the role of designer:
- From designers as problem solvers — The problems are ultimately resolved by people identified as designers by trade. The design team observes and studies the stakeholders,
- To designers as facilitators — The best way to ensure that the design will serve the organization’s purpose is to include the stakeholders in its formulation. The stakeholders are the designers, while the designers facilitate them and connect them all together.
As a designer, facilitation skills to encourage such collaborations and to connect the dots become a necessity. Let’s embrace the change in our role and the way we work.
If you are interested in learning more about how some organizations have applied Systems Thinking mindset to approach complex problems, from the area of financial inclusion, digital healthcare, to policy making, from human systems to tech perspectives, let’s join the discussion!
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