What is Systemic Design?

Alex Ryan
The Overlap
Published in
11 min readFeb 3, 2016


I’m currently writing a book to answer two questions:

What is systemic design?
How do I do it?

This is a snippet from the opening chapter that begins to address the first question.

I’d really appreciate feedback on this draft so please add your response below. I’m aiming for a clear, engaging and practical explanation of what is a complex, challenging, and often theoretical field. I’m open to including other case studies if you know a great one. Please also share your suggestions for the title of the book.

Staying afloat in a white-water world

We live — and make our living — in turbulent times. Just opening the newspaper to read of global terrorist attacks, immigrant crises, extreme weather events, and financial meltdowns reminds us that our world is complex, volatile, and surprising.

Average lifetime of a corporation on the S&P.

The workplace is no different. According to Richard Foster and Sarah Kaplan’s analysis of the McKinsey Corporate Performance Database, the average time a corporation remains on the S&P has fallen from 65 years in the 1920's to only about 10 years today. They attribute this to forces of “creative destruction.” This trend impacts governments just as much as corporations. The creative destruction fuelled by globalization and disruptive technologies has outpaced the ability of labour markets to adapt, which is compounded by declining budgets, ageing populations, and urbanization. Add to this increasing income and wealth inequality and the impacts of climate change. Governments and charitable organizations alike are faced with escalating and interlocked social and environmental challenges they cannot control, but are expected to influence.

To keep our heads above water in a sea of disruption and disorder, we cling to whatever is within reach: the organizations, processes, toolsets, mindsets, and habits we have lived with longest and are most familiar with.

But if we are to make any headway on our systemic challenges — the kind that cross national, organizational, and disciplinary boundaries at will — we need to take a fundamentally different approach. The familiar approaches have been designed for sailing fast on a smooth lake. They quickly become liabilities in a white-water world.

Smooth-water approaches include:

  • Divided organizations that fragment and compartmentalize objectives, responsibilities, and incentives;
  • Linear processes that cleave workflows into neat boxes and sequential decision cycles;
  • Reductionist tools and models that ignore context and messy realities in favour of the abstract, the idealized, and the measurable;
  • Analytic mindsets that justify decision-making primarily through deductive logic, linear causal chains, quantitative data, trend-line extrapolation, and rational argument; and
  • Habitual patterns for who we consult, who we collaborate with, and which levers we employ to make change.

Smooth-water approaches have permeated every aspect of our working lives, from the Westminster system of governance to the lean six sigma continuous improvement methodology. We are familiar with the historical victories of these methods over superstition and nepotism during the enlightenment, and over bespoke production and inefficiency during the industrial revolution. We are familiar with their ability to solve the toy problems assigned to us in university classrooms and the well-framed problems given to early-career professionals. As a reward for adhering to the rituals of professional practice and applying technical methods appropriately, our divided organizations promote us and endow us with responsibilities of increasing scope and complexity.

“there is a boundary condition for smooth-water approaches”

At a certain point in this progression, however, we may begin to notice something that troubles. With increasing complexity, the marginal benefits of our methods begin to diminish while their costs escalate. This means there is a boundary condition for smooth-water approaches, beyond which their costs exceed their benefits. Worse, if we push smooth-water approaches too far beyond this complexity limit, they become not just costly, but counter-productive. Their simplifying assumptions yield recommendations with unintended consequences that blow back and undermine our best intentions.

From staying afloat to riding turbulent waves

If we are interested in leading through complexity, ambiguity and volatility to make lasting progress on systemic challenges, we need to know: How can we push beyond the complexity limit of smooth-water approaches?

You can probably guess there is no silver bullet solution and no one-size-fits-all recipe for white-water challenges. In the rapids, each situation is unique and adaptation to a changing context is essential to success. These situations demand a mindset and toolset that is open, flexible, and adaptive.

Two capacities are especially important for white-water challenges:

  • The ability to discern relationships and make connections;
  • The ability to translate deep insights into action, and to learn rapidly from acting in situ.
The field of possibility of systemic design.

Systemics (a broad family of systems practices and systems thinking approaches) is an interdisciplinary field for seeing the world in terms of connections and interactions. Design (a wide range of design practices and design thinking approaches) is an interdisciplinary tradition of situated learning through action. Together, they open up a field of possibility for making sense of and making progress in white-water situations that my friend and colleague Harold Nelson first began to call systemic design.

Systemic design is not a process, but a new space for harnessing dynamic complexity as a generator of innovation and value creation. Systemic design can help us to bring diverse stakeholders towards a shared frame of reference for collective action. It can help to shift the thinking, patterns, and culture of organizations and even societies. Systemic design allows us to operate beyond the boundary conditions of smooth-water approaches without becoming overwhelmed by complexity.

Systemic design is a mash-up of two dangerous ideas.

“Design is the idea of intentionality”

Design is the idea of intentionality: the capacity of humans to give meaningful form to their ideas. The dangerous idea of design is that nothing is natural. In the age of the Anthropocene, every system on the planet is entangled with intentional human action. Everything is design. Therefore, everything can be redesigned. Furthermore, how and what you design is itself designed by all that has been designed. The design idea challenges us to look at everything in our world with new and critical eyes so that we might see its design flaws. It challenges us to move beyond mere criticism to get started on redesigning a better world today. Design is a way of making intentional change even when there is no clear and agreed end state.

“Systemics is the idea of interdependence”

Systemics is the idea of interdependence: webs of reciprocal influence between parts of a greater whole and their environment. It is dangerous because it challenges the belief that we know how to improve the world. Interdependence means that every action has effects other than those intended. Since everyone always sees and acts locally, there is no reason to expect that the sum of our incremental improvements will improve the greater whole. The systems idea exposes the fatal assumption we have organized our societies around. This is the assumption that knowledge and action are both furthered when we divide them into smaller pieces over and over again. It leads to — among other things — the separation between theory and practice, the fragmentation of knowledge, and the loss of meaning in work. Systemics presents an alternative approach to acting to improve complex situations that has dramatic consequences for the way we work together.

When these dangerous ideas are mixed, the result is a truly potent synthesis capable of navigating a white-water world. Whether you are working on global climate change or organizational culture change, if you have noticed the limits of your smooth-water tool-kit, systemic design can help.

What does systemic design look like?

Because it is not a single structure, process, or methodology, systemic design can look like many different things. Systemic design applies to complex challenges at all scales and across all fields. The case studies have been chosen to demonstrate this, through interviews with ordinary folk doing extraordinary work on projects great and small. Some of the case studies we explore in this book include:

  • A teacher, a development worker, and a civil servant collaborate to reverse the achievement gap between rural and urban Colombian students and bring a revolution in student-centred education to over 5 million students across 14 countries.
  • A systemic design team working for the Commander of Strategic Operations Command help to prevent strategic surprise in space, cyberspace and across the globe.
  • A social innovation lab convened between industry, non-profit, government, and academic partners accelerates the transition of the province of Alberta from an economy driven by fossil fuels towards a low carbon economy.
  • Three service designers and a physician at the Mayo Clinic co-create a new team-based primary health care model that improves the patient experience, reduces costs, and improves employee satisfaction. The new health care model integrates with an innovative community wellness initiative that improves population-level health and reduces the total cost of care.
  • An entrepreneur founds a business to provide solar energy as a service for rural Brazilians with an environmentally, socially and economically sustainable business model. Simultaneously, he founds a non-profit organization as a centre for learning about distributed renewable energy and sharing best practices globally.
  • A collaboration between the Government of Bangladesh, U.S. non-profit and academic organizations, and an international architectural studio conceived, designed and built the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh. The University enrols 500 women from 15 Asian countries to become leaders in collaborating across cultural, ethnic, and religious lines.
  • A Canadian company uses software development as a Trojan Horse to transform the strategy and culture of the organizations it supports from the bottom-up and the top-down.

Examples from my team’s practice of running the world’s first standing systemic design team in government — Alberta CoLab — will also illustrate the field of possibility. Featured projects from CoLab include open government, the integrated resource management system, health system transformation, international business development, social innovation ecosystem mapping, environmental monitoring agency design, and early childhood development.

I consider most of my own systemic design projects to be not (yet) successful. I measure success as a perceptible, positive, persistent change in the lives of Albertans, which is a high bar for work at the fuzzy front end of policy development. Yet even those projects that have become trapped in bureaucratic permafrost have been rich in learning. Even when we have failed to make a difference directly, we have built capacity across the civil service to navigate complexity with stakeholders and citizens. To my knowledge, our projects have not done any net harm, which is equally important when intervening in complex social situations.

In spite of their variety, we can discern eleven systemic design patterns that transcend the case studies. Successful systemic design projects:

  1. Promote an inquiring, open, integrative, collaborative, and centred mindset.
  2. Cultivate champions, build min-size / max-diversity core teams, and engage widely.
  3. Continually sweep in the perspectives and interests of affected actors.
  4. Reconfigure stakeholder relationship networks and generate novel collaborations between unusual suspects.
  5. Expose the costs and risks of business as usual.
  6. Mobilize around a compelling and multi-faceted vision, often simultaneously advancing the health of people, profits, and the planet.
  7. Construct multiple rich, messy, and dynamic representations of the systems we seek to influence.
  8. Create the future by prototyping it.
  9. Catalyse mutually reinforcing lines of flight across multiple levels and time-scales.
  10. Commit to slow, long-term systemic change while building momentum through rapid, tangible, local action.
  11. Learn through reflective practice and evaluate to secure external commitment.

Individually, these patterns not are unique to systemic design. Yet in combination, they allow systemic designers to forge further into white-water territory without becoming overwhelmed by complexity. As with any system, it is not the sum of the parts but the product of their interactions that generate the essential features of systemic design.

How is systemic design different from smooth-water approaches? The main differences are summarized below.

How systemic design differs from smooth-water approaches.

These differences mean that systemic design is not intended to compete with or replace traditional planning, decision-making, and project management approaches. Just as a paddling enthusiast uses a touring kayak on the lake and saves their white-water kayak for the rapids, systemic design is intended for your most complex and ambiguous challenges. It is not an efficient way to solve a well-framed problem.

How this book is organized

This book is written for aspiring systemic design practitioners. I believe the best way to learn systemic design is to practice it in a complex situation you care about with a team you can learn from. The next best way is to learn from the experiences of other teams. Theory and history provide useful complements to, but never substitutes for, practice. You cannot become good at systemic design just by reading books. To learn systemic design, practice should precede theory: act first, then reflect on and explain the observed results.

Based on these beliefs, I have organized this book to facilitate active learning grounded in practice. Each chapter begins with a small practical exercise and a set of reflective questions. The exercises can be done by individuals but work better in a team setting, where dialogue and disagreement can occur. A systemic design method is provided as one potential approach for each practical exercise. Following the exercise, a relevant pattern of systemic design is illustrated through real-world case studies.

The historical evolution of systemics and design and their most useful theories are interwoven throughout the case studies. Theory and history provide context and are intended to inoculate the reader from the danger of over-learning. The specific techniques that worked for a particular case study will rarely be appropriate for your unique challenge. To reason critically about why a technique is appropriate here but not there, we must engage at the level of theory. For the practitioner, the most useful theories are simple, robust, and low to the ground, and it is this type of practical theory that we pursue.

Finally, a few words about you.

You are the hero in this book. You are looking beyond the narrow confines of your job description to take on the challenges that really matter, in order to make the world a better place. You don’t need further convincing that smooth-water tools aren’t up to the task. You just need to be shown a different way that works under real world constraints.

Completing this book asks you to do work. It is not designed as passive in-flight reading. But it is the work you need to do anyway. So think of the most complex challenge you are currently facing. Think about who you could enlist to help map, frame, and act on it. Who else would benefit from an improvement to the situation? Who might want to practice systemic design with you? If you can find an ally or two, this will be a lot more fun.

Ready to get started?


To find out more about systemic design, visit http://www.systemic-design.net

The white-water rafting photo is free for commercial use from https://pixabay.com/en/rafting-whitewater-challenge-action-695318/

John Seely Brown used the white-water metaphor in this Arizona State University commencement speech http://www.johnseelybrown.com/ASU2015.html

McKinsey’s research on creative destruction and disruption in private and public arenas is published in the books:

  • Foster, R. N., & Kaplan, S. (2001). Creative destruction: Why companies that are built to last underperform the market, and how to successfully transform them. New York: Currency/Doubleday.
  • Dobbs, R., Manyika, J., & Woetzel, J. R. (2015). No ordinary disruption: The four global forces breaking all the trends. Excerpt available at http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/strategy/how_do_you_govern_a_disrupted_world

The field of possibility graphic is adapted from Birger Sevaldson:

“How and what you design is designed by all that has been designed” is from:



Alex Ryan
The Overlap

CEO, Synthetikos. Depolarizing place-based transitions.