The challenge of service designers wading through the field of systems thinking, and how to prevent getting stuck at the first hurdle
Systems thinking with regard to organisations is conceptually very simple;
it is a wholistic way of looking at the organisation, its environment, customers, and its place in the industry it is in, and everything that it is a part of it.
When people start to percieve their organisation and role with this mindset, they gain a perspective that leads them to understand how that organisation can work in a fundamentally different way to traditional reductionist understanding that operates today. However for the curious, if you begin to search for what Systems Thinking is to then apply it, it often ends up creating more confusion than it solves.
The more difficult part of this understanding, is getting to that place of removing our dependence on reductionism and learning to think systemically. Unfortunately there are no clear ways of doing that, and there are many weird and wonderful interpretations of how to get there. In this blog I will use Design Thinking as a comparison, because there are similarities with Systems Thinking (ST) due to the fact that they are both ways of seeing and understanding that are more fundamental than rational and mental analysis. They both can underpin how we percieve nad interpret what we see and understand. They are both 'thinking' things.
Design Thinking was coined by someone (who and when is not important in this post). It became the subject of ‘papers’ and then become increasingly recognised through very practical and successful product development. Then, others came along and made some significant and new strides in the direction of service development based on Design Thinking. An interesting characteristic about Design Thinking is the reluctance for those operating in that field to strictly define it from an academic persective, and more importantly to resist attempts to standardise and codify it. The day that happens will probably be the day it begins to die.
Section by Stefanie di Russo
We have come to realize that we do not have to turn design into a limitation of science, nor do we have to treat design as a mysterious, ineffable art. We recognize that design has its own distinct intellectual culture; its own designerly ‘things to know, ways of knowing them, and ways of finding out about them’ (Nigel Cross 1999, p. 7)
Schön aggressively refuted the idea that design needs to ground itself in science to be taken seriously. Like his peers, he made an attempt to individualise design as a unique practice through cognitive reflections and explanations on its process.
Schön’s main approach on design practice was not focused on analysing the process but rather framing and contextualizing it. He describes the idea of ‘problem setting’ as a crucial component that holds together the entire process. The point of focusing on this was to allow designers to best understand how to approach the problem before they go about processing how to solve it.
Let us search, instead, for an epistemology of practice implicit in the artistic, intuitive processes which some practitioners do bring to situations of uncertainty, instability, uniqueness and value conflict (Schön 1982, p. 49)
The Reality of Design and Systems Thinking
So, we’re all doing some Design Thinking out there, and we all have slightly different approaches and ways. We are learning from each other, from those who dont do it very well, to those who seem to be naturally aligned. What Design Thinkers are not doing, is to create academic works that define it.
Design thinking has always been around well before it was named. It is when we define it, name it, and then attempt to codify it does it then lose what it actually is. For those involved in this, you will know what I mean, and the excellent book Design Thinking Doing reflects this approach.
Systems Thinking on the other hand, seems to have been defined early on by different groups who were primarily academically focused. While there is nothing wrong with that, much of Systems Thinking today seems to appeal to those who have focused on the academic aspect almost exclusively.
It is very difficult for many people to truly get help in understanding the first rungs of the ladder of Systems Thinking unless you plunge into the theory. This seems to be a hangover of its history; starting in the realms of engineering, systems thinking appears to be rooted in theory through analytical analysis, rather than emergence and holistic understanding.
On the other hand there are many who use Systems Thinking in the workplace, partially disconnected from the theory, but they have no united voice or way to group together in the community way that Design Thinking has. Is this practical version still Systems Thinking?
Learning Systems Thinking? It’s not so Straightforward, lets ask Russ Ackoff
So I want to seperate Systems Thinking from systems theory. They are different but yet related. Many will first meet with systems theory when embarking on this journey of learning and discovery. Or they might stumble across open-ended global systems thinking discussions that have little associated theory.
A really interesting observation about those who focus on systems theory is the danger of believing that the theory is exactrly the same as Systems Thinking. Theory itself by definition is a rational, scientific and reductionist way of looking at anything. Academia engages in theory primarily. Systems theory, when compared to Systems Thinking in action is different. Can they really be the same when each are on different levels of reality? But surely they can be directly linked.
As an example of theory, when we use a model to describe something, we are not describing that thing directly. It is and always will be an artificial construct that we create to help us understand. And often it is a poor relation to the real thing, in that we have to embellish or move away from the model when using it. Theory might help someone analytically to become a Systems Thinker, and for many this is the route for them, but it could also confuse and teach us about structured constructs and models if we limit ourselves to this superficially. Looking at Systems Thinking through a Systems Thinking lens, we would never reduce it to its component parts and then ‘teach’ those. For others it is far better to experience Systems Thinking, and learn from that.
We need methodologies to help others in organisations to learn, but that methodology is not or ever will be Systems Thinking itself. The methodology or approach anyone takes is their way of undergoing a journey of Systems Thinking learning or application.
Ideally, systems theory and practice should inform one another
What is an Organisation Understood as a System?
What is an organisation as a system? Simply put...
The core of a system is an interconnected set of people that are coherently organized in a way that achieves something.
Systems is just a word, something that people have understood as long as people have understood anything. ... It does not really help much to have a systems awareness up here, it all comes down to what we do, how we think and act. Peter Senge
So What is Systems Thinking?
Systems thinking is the way of thinking that incorporates both theory, and systems thinking as a practice.
And if anyone now wants a definition that makes any sense in the real world, listen to Ackoff talking about systems thinking, and how it fits into Design:
And here is a definition that I like:
Systems thinking is a 'mental model' of how we see and talk about our realities that help us to better understand and work with 'systems' that influence and shape the quality of our lives, Gareth Evans Msc.
I would expand that to ensure that it is at the level of mindset, as we naturally develop our develop ourselves through experience in a rational and often reductionist environment.
Navigating the Systems thinking Environment
Focusing on the the correct definition of theory above all else can sometimes be characterised by people expressing particular behaviours, especially visible on social media. I have found that these not only hinder learning, but often do not help others to learn. Examples:
The approach of Design Thinkers, free from historic trends, care allowed to refresh the definitions, and be what they decide they want to be, free of judgement.
The splintering of the systems movement into warring factions championing soft systems thinking against hard systems thinking and critical systems thinking against soft systems thinking may provide amusement to academics but is alienating to practitioners. Prof. MICHAEL C. JACKSON
When applied to organisations, Systems Thinking should be reversing the impact of reductionist thinking, Taylorism and rigid scientific thinking; it should be pointing us to novel ways of seeing and managing through people, that results in positive outcomes for the organisation, and for the staff themselves. It could be heralding new horizons that coincide with Design Thinking and its associated mindset and culture; Design Thinking and Systems Thinking should go hand in hand. For me, part of the beauty and power of Systems Thinking is its inclusion of everything that incorporates the total aspects of organisations, especially people and the recognition that people are at the core of this.
And as for my journey, I was lucky enough to meet some people who have spent much time analysing theories nad creating approaches, but more importantly, learning from the reality of current organisations and how we operate within them. Putting that theory into practice. For myself, the understanding and application of Systems Thinking has developed through experience, a mindset of learning, and the application of ideas and concepts to discover their impact. Design Thinking could have gone down the same sorry path as Systems Thinking, but it luckily got led by those who were open, flexible and understood emergence of knowledge and learning through experience.
Service design underpinned by system thinking
The diagram above is but one view of a framework to developing a successful systems thinking based methodology for service or organisation design applicable for practitioners for organisations. For myself, moving from concepts derived from theory, to successful techniques and practice, creates a realistic and effective methodology that brings in knowledge from various specialisms. In particular it allows for success to be continued from those who have spent their lives successfully learning this most difficult task.
Two particular aspects of this framework are worth noting, The first is that we must always start with what we inherently believe are the key mindset and paradigms we bring with us. The second is that feedback from experience in organisations is the primary way that this model develops a successful methodology. It is no coincidence that the Experience & Learning bubble is the largest.
Looking at this framework, it does demonstrate something very evident, that different routes taken by different people will create different methodologies, and that we should recognise this difference as positive and providing necessary comparison to learn from.
This model also contains some parallels as to how Design Thinking has expanded into a myriad of individual approaches, and continues to evolve.
The quote below is one that has transformed my fundamental attitude from one of talking and arguing, to one of doing and being open to learning. For me, doing is the core that drives the model above.
"What you’ve achieved is what matters, not what you’ve suggested or said." - Taiichi Ohno
What do I suggest for others to move forward? I am not exactly sure, and I would welcome suggestions. Certainly I would encourage learners to seek out those who they resonate with, and reject those who they don't. Read, connect, visit, and work with those you find attracted to, and move away from those who you find express behaviours and attitudes that repulse. Thats what I did, and it has helped me. Oh, and the most important thing, practice it, do it, make mistakes and apply and learn.
I have found that Systems Thinking that is published is often applied to world problems, social, or natural systems, or derived from the early days to Engineering. If we look at the models and concepts that are created to communicate that type of application of Systems Thinking, I find that they can be often unhelpful to learn from when focused on services and organisations. I fail to recognise the similarity that an organisation has with a natural ‘thing’ like a cell or a human body, nor is it a logical robot. And as such perhaps be courageous enough to create your own understanding of organisations when helping yourself to think more systemically.
The way I understand how able someone is to see an organisation through a Systems Thinking lens is to have a conversation with them, and listen to how they see and therefore describe about that organisation. Their concepts and how they express them will link to their thinking.
Complexity & Grint
Complexity, it messes with our rationality. Let go of that rationality as a cage and allow complexity to become normal.
Understanding complexity, and therefore moving away from my prevailing and rational mindset, has helped me to understand why I often failed to sustain much of what I was trying to achieve in the past, with managing operations and people, implementing change, creating and implementing IT systems. I, like so many others, have looked back and seen the frustration and struggle to ‘get things to stick’ and how I used to blame others for that failure.
What I now realise, apart from a different style of management in general, is that the mechanisms (control, skills, behaviours, etc) that operate with complexity, need to be quite different to the mechanisms that are needed to dealing with complicated but rational services and problems.
Understanding when to use a particular approach, helps managers to understand why sometimes their efforts are successful or futile.
In both the public and private sectors, managers that I see assume that their learned understanding of management is rooted in those derived from complicated rational systems. Especially those based on Command & Control. There are many resources now available at the click of a button to help us to understand complexity and how to deal with it, so I wont go into details here, but I have found the simplicity of Grint a very helpful starting point.
My Experience of Outcomes of Good Service Design
As an exercise, which I do not know if has any value out not, I have decided to write a first draft of a set of Good Service Design principles. (I was inspired by Rams the product designers principles). Any feedback would be welcome, as I expect these principles to change significantly:
The Foundations of what I do
These are some of my Systems Thinking & Complexity principles listed, that I use as a foundation to what I do.
I hear things, and I forget them. I see things, and I remember them. I do things, and I understand them. Confucious
this is primarily about human beings working together to solve the problems of other human beings.
Digital Design then follows from this Service Design, and the human and formal interactions that are created.
It is easy to remember theory with the mind; the problem is to remember with the body. The goal is to know & do instinctively. Having the spirit to endure the training & practice is the first step on the road to understanding.
Qualities Required to Learn about Thinking things