Systems Practices: What Might These Be?

by Anna Birney

October 4, 2019

At the School of System Change we support people to navigate multiple approaches, tools and methods for systems change, because we believe there are many ways to do this work. Regularly, we are asked “How do you know whether what we are doing is systemic?”. Through our programmes we work with and draw on a wealth of practitioners across this emerging field. What we started to notice was a set of “systemic practices” that we think are at work across multiple approaches and tools practitioners use. Currently there are ten (a few more have joined the family since an earlier rendition we called The ways of a systems thinker — and there are, of course more). They come in no particular order. Below we offer a couple of short paragraphs of elucidation — drawing on some of the theory behind these practices. We would welcome feedback to help evolve these to the next level!

These systemic practices have collaboratively curated, in particular with Jennifer Berman, Anna Warrington, Laura Winn and myself.

Enable the system to see itself, hold the whole picture

A system might be defined as a collection of interacting parts organised as a whole to do something.

Very often, individual actors in a system do not see this whole of which they are a part, and whose behaviour affects their own, like in Rumi’s poem The elephant in the dark. Helping different stakeholders see their place in a wider dynamic, and how they contribute to change alongside others around them, supports effective strategies and transformational change.

Work at different levels concurrently

Systems have a pattern of nested hierarchy — a blood cell is nested in a heart, which is nested within a circulatory system, in a body, a family, a society. Change happens across patterns at these different levels.

We often forget to consider the implications of change happening beyond our usual scope; at a wider scale, and also at a smaller scale. We can learn to work with fractals, and influence change at multiple levels.

Identify connections and how parts interact

Properties of systems emerge from relationships between parts and environmental context. So the relationships between the parts are as important as the parts themselves.

We are good at looking at things, often much less adept at understanding how things are connected and how these interactions affect behaviours. We can determine where to intervene when we better understand the nature of flows and relationships. We can learn to look for and mitigate unintended consequences of our actions.

Engage different perspectives

Systems are concepts that we use to understand the world around us, rather than just concrete things. We deliberate and make boundary judgements to support this understanding. This means that systems are subjective, and can be perceived differently from different angles or roles.

Engaging different perspectives enables us to create a richer understanding around the challenge in question, and make better strategic decisions. Variation and diversity are also necessary for resilience, adaptation and innovation. We can cultivate multiple views throughout our processes.

Understand agency, power, and responsibility

Systems are not out there, operating beyond our human systems of power. Power itself is a relational dynamic rather than a thing you have. Power can take many forms, and is needed for change. Agency can be found anywhere in the system and can be strengthened by fostering relationships.

When considering how to create change, we need to explore how power is expressed and wielded, including our own. We can understand how we might shift the distribution of power and change the nature of relationships, altering where power is concentrated, and enabling responsibility.

Work with activating and resisting forces

Systems are constantly changing. For change to occur there must be an interplay between forces activating the change, and others resisting change. If a ceramist has an idea for a clay pot, the form cannot come into being if the material does not present resistance to the potter’s hands.

When focusing on innovation, we often work with forces for change, and like to disregard resisting forces. On the contrary, campaining approaches can be focused on working head on against resistance. We can learn to work with both to achieve creative potential rather than compromise.

Consider different timescales and consequences over time

Systems are in a constant dynamic of change, are not static entities. They develop patterns of behaviour over long periods, through the relationships of the parts, and interactions with their environment. They can also be volatile and change suddenly when factors converge.

We often operate with short time horizons, at most a few years. We need to consider how things have changed in the past, are now changing and might change into the future. There are multiple possible futures to consider.

Understand patterns to make effective interventions

Systems display patterns of behaviour, across scales. Patterns can be in the physical structure, the flows and relationships, or the deeper mindsets or paradigms of a system. System change as an outcome is the configuration of a new pattern of organisation or system structure.

We are generally good at spotting themes (clustering post-its!) and less adept at looking for and working with patterns across scales, where potential for transformational change lies. Once we can see how patterns, structures and dynamics respond, we can decide where to place our energy for most effective change.

Embrace complexity, constantly learning and adapting

The systems we are engaging with are complex; relationships between cause and effect can only be perceived in hindsight. Change doesn’t happen in a linear manner, but in fits and starts, with critical junctures producing sudden massive change.

In this context, relying on rigid forward planning is not effective, we need to constantly engage with what is happening at multiple levels, learn from what we’re sensing, and adapt our strategies as things change around us. We need to develop reflective practices to allow learning to be embedded into our thinking.

Constantly question assumptions

Systemic change happens at multiple levels, and is driven by deep patterns, mindsets and paradigms. We hold assumptions constantly about how things work in order to be able to engage with complex systems. Many assumptions will come from the worldview we bring to our work and lives.

In order to create transformational change at a deep level, we need to constantly make ourselves aware of, and challenge, our own assumptions, and those built into any tools or frameworks we use. Otherwise we risk creating superficial change that reinforces the status quo.

If you would like to develop your systemic practice alongside a supportive community of peers, please explore School of System Change learning offerings.

by Anna Birney

Anna Birney is the CEO (Chief Enabling/Evolving Officer) at School of System Change.