The Change Lab process is systemic, participative, and creative, allowing new possibilities, insights, relationships, and innovations to emerge. One of its main tenets is to create systemic results—outcomes that will shift whole systems.
In order to make this kind of transformation a reality, participants must carefully examine the system they are trying to change. They need to understand not only what is happening based on what they observe now, but also from a longer-term perspective—what is happening over time? And finally, what are the underlying structures and thinking that may be causing the issues?
In order to effectively identify these dynamics, participants of a Change Lab need to build their capacity to think systemically. Popularized by Peter Senge in his book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, systems thinking provides a vocabulary, an approach, and a set of tools that can help you understand why things are the way they are and where the leverage points for change may be. Systems thinking looks at the interconnections and relationships between the different parts of a system, not just at the parts themselves. This perspective provides more opportunities to change the way a system behaves than a traditional analytical approach.
Before joining Reos, I was fortunate to work at Pegasus Communications, a company that provides resources to people who want to become better “systems thinkers.” There, I learned many lessons that I find valuable in a Change Lab. For example, one of the tenets of systems thinking is, The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back. Have you ever noticed how the more effort you put into something, the harder it seems to get? This resistance to change is a natural tendency of systems. To overcome it, we need to find leverage points—the places where we get more impact for less work.
Another systems thinking expression is, “The only way out is back in.” Until we are ready to acknowledge our role in creating the system’s behavior and realize we are the only ones who can change things by changing ourselves and “wading” back in, we won’t be able to do a thing. We can’t change a situation from the sidelines.
But beyond axioms, systems thinking also provides us with highly effective tools. As part of the sensing phase of the Change Lab, we try to synthesize all the material that we have uncovered. A useful way to do so is by employing a common systems tool—the iceberg.
The iceberg makes us look at a system through different lenses. It forces us to expand our horizon and not consider just a single activity or event, but to step back and identify the different patterns that that event is part of, the possible structures that might be causing it to occur, and finally, the thinking that is creating those structures. It is through changing the way we think that we can effect the transformation that we seek.
To try this exercise in your workshop, download the Complete Facilitator’s Notes for The Iceberg: