System Thinking

Description: Our whole world is organized in systems: health care and education; social service and community development agencies; faith communities; commerce and industry; arts and culture; and so on. All are mutually dependent upon and influenced by others. A Systems Thinking approach uses diagramming and simulation modeling to help individuals and groups better understand their communities and change processes. Systems Thinking insists all stakeholders be consulted and participate in both the identification and resolution processes.

Note: In Systems Thinking, the whole is primary and the parts are secondary, not vice-versa.

Process: A Systems Thinking approach

  • identifies a problem

  • develops a dynamic hypothesis explaining the cause of the problem

  • builds a 'causal model' or graphic illustration of the system/s at the root of the problem

  • 'tests' (simulates) the model to ensure it reproduces the behaviour seen in the real world

  • devises and tests (in the model) alternative policies that alleviate the problem; and

  • directs participants toward an implementation plan to resolve the problem/s.

Participants rarely proceed through these steps without reviewing and refining an earlier step. For instance, the first problem identified may be only a symptom of a still greater problem; the model will include multiple 'feedback loops'.

One way to implement Systems Thinking is to invite a representative group of stakeholders to a Workout to Build a Process Map.

Plot each major step of the proposed change/development process along the top of an 8 - 10 metre sheet of newsprint. Along the left edge of the paper, list all stakeholders: include individuals and groups. Along the bottom edge of the paper, mark the time line of the process. Ask participants to post yellow self-adhesive notes to chart every detail of each step and the time each action will take.

Use red self-adhesive notes to flag dead zones, but take care not to be critical of participants' work. Take note of anything that restricts the effective flow of the work; these are prime areas for process improvements.

After the session, send the proposed solutions to the decision makers for a 'yes', 'no', or 'needs more work' response. Implement the solutions that can be done immediately. Let participants know what progress is being made implementing or adjusting the solutions that could not be introduced right away.

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