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Systems Thinking

Complexity arises in situations in which there are many interconnected and interdependent parts. Many present day challenges, such as climate change, global migration, political turbulence, and violent conflict involve an intricate interplay of social, economic, and environmental factors that shift and evolve over time. Systemic approaches to practice recognise the interrelated nature of such complex situations, and that dealing with components in isolation can be counterproductive and may lead to unintended consequences.

Systems thinking (ST) is a well-established field of research and practice that examines ways of working with complexity, offering a rich resource of theory, models and techniques in doing so.

Thinking and working systemically is challenging, as it requires a shift from a mindset that values the capacity to manage and plan towards one that grapples with uncertainty and unpredictability, working with emergent rather than predicted outcomes. The approach is a juggling act; everything is interconnected but it is impossible to deal with ‘everything’ – and so it becomes necessary to limit its focus to some elements, whilst keeping a healthy part/whole balance.

iFacilitate combines facilitation expertise with knowledge and experience of systems thinking approaches in order to support clients and teams in:

• Exploring the rationale for using ST approaches - when is such an approach needed? When is it not required?;

• Choosing appropriate tools, techniques, models and methodologies from the many that are available and creating a ‘toolbox’ of approaches;

• Enabling collaboration between multiple stakeholders and to draw on multiple perspectives, knowledge, and capabilities;

• Promoting a process of continual reflection and deep learning.

Further Systems Thinking reading can be found via OR Society and/or Slideshare.

Systems Thinking at work...

What helps and what hinders practitioners in applying Systems Thinking approaches to their work?

Elizabeth of iFacilitate was fascinated by her personal observations that, although the application of Systems Thinking (ST) in the fields of peacebuilding and conflict transformation seems limited, some organisations and practitioners make use of ST tools and methodologies. From this arose her research inquiry into the reasons that some in these fields adopt such approaches and others do not. This work led to the successful completion of her master’s in Systems Thinking in Practice in 2015. The research inquiry highlighted aspects of Systems Thinking approaches that create challenges. It enabled Elizabeth to identify how she could support others in addressing such challenges, and in making best use of application of ST methodologies, techniques and tools to complex situations.

• Such challenges include:

• The nature of thinking and working systemically is often misunderstood or difficult to understand. There is a need for better communication and to develop more user-friendly approaches.

• Introducing  non-linear systemic approaches into contexts where established practices are linear, static and non-adaptive can be challenging. Pressures of time and workload make the introduction of new and unfamiliar ways of working difficult. Someone to champion and support ST approaches is needed.

• Working systemically requires the input of multiple perspectives. Collaborating across difference can be challenging and may generate conflict. Support is often needed.  

• Developing the capability of being critically reflective is a core capability for an ST practitioner. Without it, systems tools and techniques may be applied in a routine and standardised ways, and may fail to inquire into the beliefs and assumptions underpinning their use, nor examine the independency between those who act as interveners in conflict situations and those experiencing the conflict. Developing the capacity of critical reflection needs time, effort and supportive input.  

• The role of effective facilitation practice is often overlooked. Process is important to the communication, ‘translation’ and mediation of ST approaches.

Drawing on her research and her knowledge of Systems Thinking, her experience in tutoring and teaching, and her facilitation abilities, Elizabeth has evolved a deepened appreciation of what helps others in thinking and in working systemically. She provides support in developing the capacities for critical reflection and in working with uncertainty, and in evaluating the choice of ST approaches that best suit the stated purpose.

Since completing her dissertation, Elizabeth has gone to support students in their learning of Systems Thinking. In July 2017, she took the opportunity to present her thinking at a SCiO meeting of ST practitioners.

The presentation can be found on Youtube:

Part 1: Elizabeth McDonnell: Thinking Systemically – what is it and how might diagramming help?

Part 2 and Q&A: Elizabeth McDonnell: Thinking Systemically (...) how might diagramming help?

An abstract from Elizabeth’s MSc dissertation is also available as a PDF download.

Supporting learning in Systems Thinking

From her MSc Research, Elizabeth of iFacilitate came to the conclusion that education and training can play a key role in familiarising practitioners with Systems Thinking and in introducing them to a range of techniques, models and methodologies. By providing opportunities for learning through experience, they gain confidence in the use of ST approaches, and can go on to act as advocates and supporters of their use in the workplace.  

Her role as Associate Lecturer and consultant with the Open University provided opportunities to engage with the teaching and learning of ST approaches. When acting as module author for a new postgraduate module, T879 Conflict and Development,Elizabeth proposed that a study week be allocated on the topic of working with complexity. Her proposal was accepted by the module team and she drew on her knowledge of ST to deliver this section of the module. Students on T879 come from diverse work backgrounds including development management, humanitarian aid and the UK public sector. They engage proactively with concepts and see the relevance of applying their learning to their work in complex, social contexts.

In 2016, Elizabeth assumed responsibility for tutoring the Open University postgraduate module 'TU811, Thinking strategically: systems tools for managing change' . This role allowed her to further develop her expertise and knowledge of Systems Thinking in Practice, and to support learning in this field. TU811 deals with five ST approaches: Systems Dynamics (SD), the Viable Systems Model (VSM), Soft Systems Methodology (SSM), Strategic Options Development and Analysis (SODA), and Critical Systems Heuristics (CSH). Through her capacity for connecting theory and practice, Elizabeth helped students to engage with the theoretical frameworks and in making use of them when evaluating choice of a particular ST approach. She drew on her practitioner experience to provide examples and help students explore their own work with a systemic approach and a critically reflective eye.

This work has given Elizabeth experience in the development and use of educational materials on Systems Thinking, and access to a wide range of resources. She continues to collaborate with others in developing educational materials that help in communication of ST, and in exploring ways of applying and adapting its tools and techniques to create methodologies for use in conflict situations.