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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 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 those who wish to make use of systems thinking tools and techniques, suited to their needs and purposes;
  • Enable clients to collaborate with multiple stakeholders and to draw on multiple perspectives, knowledge, and capabilities;
  • Promote a process of continual reflection and deep learning.

Further Systems Thinking reading can be found on the OR Society and Slideshare.

Systems Thinking at work...

Exploring the application of systemic approaches in conflict transformation

In 2015, Elizabeth of iFacilitate undertook a research inquiry in order to complete her master’s in Systems Thinking in Practice (STiP). The question for her inquiry – ‘What helps, what hinders in applying Systems Thinking to Professional Practice in Conflict Transformation?’ – arose from her personal observation that the application of Systems Thinking (ST) in the fields of peacebuilding and conflict transformation was seemingly limited at best.

She explored influences that encouraged some practitioners in conflict transformation to make use of systemic approaches in their work. In carrying out the inquiry, Elizabeth made use of ST approaches such as Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) in exploring the scope of the research, and cognitive mapping techniques such as Strategic Options Development and Analysis (SODA) in her analysis of practitioner responses. 

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, particularly as application of some systems techniques and methodologies can be time-consuming. Systems language and approaches can seem inaccessible to those new to them.

Important capabilities for those key practitioners who wish to adopt systemic approaches include being adaptable and curious, being able to work with uncertainty and unpredictability, engaging in continual learning, and being critically reflective. Facilitation skills enable practitioners to work effectively with groups in introducing systemic approaches, and to collaborate across sectors, disciplines and institutions. By its very nature, learning and experimentation involve the risk of making mistakes. Finding support in the form of like-minded colleagues and a community of practice and influential champions provides safety and potential openings for introduction of systemic approaches.

Developing the capability of being critically reflective is seen as core to becoming a systemic practitioner. Without it, systems tools and techniques may be applied in a routine and standardised way, such that they do not inquire into the beliefs and assumptions underpinning their use, nor examine the independency of the relationships between those who act as interveners in conflict situations and those experiencing the conflict. Time is needed to engage in the practice of critical reflection, to work collaboratively, and to find means of appreciating different approaches to thinking and working. Such processes are often undervalued and not given priority in busy, workplace environments. The use of specific systems tools, techniques and methodologies may have an added value in that such usage creates space for critical reflection in a rigorous and structured way.

Conclusions

The increasing recognition of the limitations of short-term, project-focused approaches to complex social situations is creating the potential for exploring alternatives and interest in what ST has to offer. Education and training has a role to play. However, there is a need to identify and select the most relevant systems techniques, models, methodologies and theories from the rich traditions of Systems Thinking and other fields such as the Complexity Sciences, and tailoring them into coherent educational offerings for use in peace and conflict studies. By providing opportunities for learning through experience, confidence can be gained in the use of systemic approaches, and in developing the capability to use tools appropriate to the situation. Theoretical frameworks can help in this latter process by providing a means of evaluating the rationale for use of an approach. There is a shortage of persuasive case study material - the development of specific and tailored case studies and use of simulations illustrating application of systemic approaches in conflict situations would provide a valuable learning resource.  The means by which learners develop critical reflection capabilities and continue to develop them progressively, also needs consideration.

Dissertation: Applying the Theory and Methodologies of Systems Thinking to Professional Practice in Conflict Transformation [pdf]

Tutoring systems thinking

In 2016, Elizabeth of iFacilitate assumed responsibility for tutoring the Open University postgraduate module 'TU811, Thinking strategically: systems tools for managing change'. Successful completion of TU811 is a requirement for the MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice, and the role allowed Elizabeth to further develop her expertise and knowledge of systems thinking in practice, and to support students in their learning in this field.

Students taking the module were able to develop their appreciation and understanding of complex situations, in which there are many interconnections, uncertainties and unknowns, where stakeholders have diverse perspectives, agendas and interests, and where conflicts inevitably arise. Working within such contexts and implementing action for change can be an unpredictable process. The module enables students to become familiar with a range of tools and approaches, from the traditions of systems thinking for working with complexity. These include Systems Dynamics (SD), the Viable Systems Model (VSM), Soft Systems Methodology (SSM), Strategic Options Development and Analysis (SODA), and Critical Systems Heuristics (CSH).