Systems thinking has been promoted as an approach to addressing the intractable social challenges that we, as humanity, have created and that require urgent attention.
But how can we practically apply systems thinking approaches to these problems?
In this article, we share six systems transformational principles that answer this question.
A system is the interaction of relationships, interactions, and resources in a defined context. Systems are not merely the sum of their parts; they are the product of the interactions among these parts. Importantly, social systems are not isolated entities; they are interconnected and subjectively constructed, defined by the boundaries we establish to understand and influence them.
Systems thinking, then, is an approach to solving problems in complex systems that looks at the interconnectedness of things to achieve a particular goal.
How does systems thinking apply to social change?
A system can become overwhelming very quickly. The more we try to describe it, the more aware we become of the richness of its interactions.
Systems thinking is helpful when addressing complex, dynamic, and generative social challenges. This approach is necessary when there is no definitive statement of the problem because the problem manifests differently depending on where one is situated in that system, which implies there is no objectively right answer, and the process of solving the issue involves diverse stakeholders with different roles. Systems thinking enables us to dig deeper into the root causes of these problems, making it more effective for social change initiatives.
Given the importance of defining and drawing the boundaries of the systems of our intervention, the acrostic "FENCED" captures the six systems transformational principles of how to apply systems thinking in driving social change.
F - frame the challenge as a shared endeavour
E - establish a diverse convening group
N - nudge inner and outer work
C - centre an appreciation of complexity
E - embrace conflict and connection, chaos and order
D - develop innovative solutions that can be tested and scaled.
1. Frame the challenge as a shared endeavour
Social problems, like solving for urban water resilience in Africa, are inherently complex and cut across many domains and sectors. It's important to frame the challenge in a way that invites collaboration where people are willing to step out of their 'comfort zones' and see the systemic nature of the challenge. Although people might not agree with how they see the problematic situation, if they could be helped to see that no individual actors can address the problem alone, they become more inclined to work with opposing opinions.
Good framing of the challenge lays the ground for collective ownership to emerge and allows for meaningful stakeholder engagement and buy-in. It involves moving away from the individual view of owning the problem to making room for shared ownership, where the entire group invests in the solutions. A good framing allows stakeholders to see the whole of the elephant rather than taking the part of the elephant as the whole.
2. Establish a diverse convening group
To think and act in a systems thinking way is to embrace a holistic perspective. This means seeing the problem from all possible angles. Central to achieving this holistic perspective is establishing a diverse convening group that will ensure the process and stakeholders are sufficiently diverse. For example, the Southern Africa Food Lab's approach is purposefully designed to include sectors across the food system in all their initiatives.
Participants taking part in a workshop in collaboration with Reos Partners and the Ubele Initiative.
Stakeholders gain a more comprehensive understanding of the challenge through multiple perspectives. This helps in identifying interdependencies, feedback loops, and unintended consequences that might not be apparent when looking at the problem in isolation.
3. Nudge inner and outer work
Taking a systems approach can lead us to focus primarily on the outer game of systems change: What do we/I need to do to change the system?
While this is important, it is necessary for all the actors in the system to balance this outward drive with the inner work of seeing themselves as parts of the system. This inner work entails shining light on one's mindset, beliefs, motivations, and values in ways that lead to self-awareness and reflection, enabling greater emotional intelligence and increased capacity to collaborate with diverse actors.
This inner dimension is crucial because one's mental models, beliefs, and assumptions influence how one perceives and interacts with the system. In our work, we talk about critical meta-competencies like reflexivity, empathy, flexibility, courage, and curiosity, which are required to shift mental models and beliefs for sustainable progress on an issue. Shifting one's mental models can lead to different insights, approaches, and even systemic breakthroughs in the outer dimension of developing practical collaborative strategies and implementing those strategies in ways that deliver the intended impact.
4. Centre an appreciation of complexity
Intervening in complex systems is to acknowledge that simplistic, linear approaches are often inadequate to address complex real-world challenges. A key aspect of applying systems thinking in social change is understanding the different types of complexities that can be encountered:
Dynamic complexity: This type of complexity arises when cause and effect are distant in time and space, and they interact with each other, creating cyclical patterns in the system. Understanding the deep cultural roots of a social challenge is essential to addressing issues related to dynamic complexity.
Social complexity: Social complexity emerges when diverse actors within a system hold different perspectives and interests, making it difficult to define the problem itself. A participatory approach is crucial in these situations.
Generative complexity: Generative complexity occurs when the future is uncertain and undetermined, without clear roadmaps or precedents. In this context, an emergent approach is required, allowing for creative adaptation and improvisation.
For example, enabling and driving inclusive insurance, particularly for the most vulnerable members of our society, requires an appreciation of the three types of complexities. By recognising and centring complexity, the relevant stakeholders give themselves permission to approach the problem with curiosity while embracing experimentation, rapid learning and adaptation.
5. Embrace conflict and connection, chaos and order
The diverse stakeholders working to address the problematic situation will likely have conflicting worldviews. This might lead to a situation where the actors do not like or trust each other. We have found that liking or trusting each other is not a necessary requirement for collaboration.
Watch Adam Kahane's Speech – Radical Collaboration to Transform Social Systems: Moving Forward Together with Love, Power, and Justice.
Collaboration, especially in addressing deeply rooted issues like inequality, racism, and the climate crisis is not only about transcending differences and finding connection but also embracing the tension and conflict within relationships. It requires holding multiple roles simultaneously, being willing to engage in challenging conversations, interrogating power, embracing chaos and order, and acknowledging the dual nature of conflict and collaboration in social change work.
6. Develop innovative solutions that can be tested and scaled
Complex adaptive challenges have no best-practiced solutions — solutions require experimentation to make progress. Finding solutions to intractable challenges involves identifying key systemic leverage points where interventions can be most effective, and creatively developing, testing, and adapting new initiatives to address systemic challenges by cross-sector innovation teams. For example, transforming the INGO sector requires new systems and ways of working that should be prototyped and tested before they are embedded into the sector.
Key elements worth attending to include:
leveraging existing resources and partnerships,
considering system dynamics through feedback loops,
designing for scalability, and
flexibility in implementation.
FENCED might seem counterintuitive to systems thinking, which advocates for more fluid and adjustable boundaries. We use FENCED as a metaphor that highlights the need to be deliberate and thoughtful in the management of boundaries, which is a key aspect of systems thinking.
The system's boundaries help in understanding what is included within the system and what lies outside. It provides a structured framework for analysis and synthesis where carefully considered actions are made. These actions are the six principles we have highlighted above. These principles do not need to be practiced in a sequential way as each weave into and complements another.
Systems thinking is a powerful approach to facilitating social change in a world filled with complex, interconnected problems. By applying the FENCED principles, stakeholders can work together to tackle wicked social challenges effectively.
Ultimately, systems thinking can help us see the bigger picture, identify opportunities, and navigate the complex and uncertain terrain of addressing social issues.
Interested in diving deeper into the world of systems thinking and how it can be used to drive impactful change? Get in touch with us; we'd love to start a conversation with you.