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 mechanistic reductionist principles that operate 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 understanding Systems Thinking, is a cognitive one; 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 I have come across many weird and wonderful interpretations of how to get there. In this blog I will use Design Thinking as an analogy, 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 logical analysis. They both can underpin how we percieve nad interpret what we see and understand. They are both 'thinking' things.
Design Thinking was coined in the 20th century. 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 design 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. And, acording to many practitioners, 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, and learned from when we didn't do it very well. In the last 15 years Design Thinking has made a significant impact in modern business. And perhaps an attribute to this success is what Design Thinkers are not doing, and that is to create academic works that define it.
Design thinking has always been around well before it was named some decades ago. 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, you will know what I mean through the excellent book Design Thinking Doing that 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 what we call Systems Thinking still seems to be defined more by those who have focused on the academic aspect almost exclusively.
Therefore at fist glance, it may be difficult for some curious people to get appropriate help in understanding the first rungs of the ladder of Systems Thinking, if they think that you need to plunge into the theory. For me, this seems to be a hangover of its history; starting in the realms of engineering, systems thinking written concepts appear to be rooted in theory through analytical analysis, rather than practical evidence and holistic understanding. However, this is not quite true. If we examine the lives of those known system thinker creators, they often had deep conceptual and holistic thinking. And it is this that is often hidden by academic writings.
On the other hand there are many who use Systems Thinking more connected to the workplace, and less connected to the theory, who are successfully developing. But they have no united voice or way to group together as a community that Design Thinking has. And 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 systems thinking discussions that has little associated theory.
I want seperate the two because Theory itself by definition is a rational, scientific and reductionist way of looking at anything. Academia primarily engages in theory and research analysis. Systems theory, when compared to Systems Thinking in action is by conceptual definition different. But are obviously directly linked.
As an example, when we use a model to describe something, we are not describing that thing directly. The model is and always will be an artificial construct that we create to help us understand. And often the model is a poor relation to the real thing, in that we have to embellish or move away from the model when applying it. We use models and theories to help us analytically to understand Systems Thinking, and for some this is the ideal route for them. But for others it could also confuse and only teach us about structured constructs and models, if we limit ourselves to this approach. Looking at Systems Thinking through a holistic lens, we would never reduce it to its component parts and then ‘teach’ those.
Ideally, systems theory and practice should inform one another, Prof Mike Jackson OBE
So, for some it is far better to explore and experience Systems Thinking in action.
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.
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. Donella Meadows
A system is just a concept, 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?
To combine with Design Thinking, for the purpose of service design, Systems Thinking is the way of thinking that incorporates both theory, concepts, and practice.
And if anyone now wants a definition of Systems Thinking 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 definition to ensure that it operates at the level of mindset or paradigm, as we naturally operate within a rational and often reductionist environment. So many of the greats of systems thinking express themselves through a paradigm related to how we percieve the world of work, that is for them a fundamental part of systems thinking.
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 are:
If you go to the world of systems thinking and cybernetic groups you will find that they are very often antagonistic. Its not necessary to behave in that way, its juvenile.
...We should curate our different modes of thinking, rather than moving towards uniformity. Ranulph Glanville
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 OBE
If you go to the world of systems thinking and cybernetic groups you will find that they are very often antagonistic. Its not necessary to behave in that way, its juvenile...
In contrast, and that the world of Systems Thinking can learn from, is the approach of Design Thinkers - free from historic trends, allow for the refreshing of the definitions, and be what they decide they want to be, free of judgement.
When applied to organisations, Systems Thinking should be reversing the impact of reductionist thinking, Taylorism and rigid mechanistic 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 all aspects of organisations, especially 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 and 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 within organisations. It also brings with it knowledge from various specialisms.
A particular aspect of this framework that is worth noting, is that feedback from experience in organisations is the primary way that this model develops into a successful methodology. It is no coincidence that the Experience & Learning bubble is the largest.
Looking at this framework, it does demonstrate something, 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.
Design Thinking has mushroomed because its fertile ground is a myriad of service design agencies, operating within various industries. And I continues to evolve. Contrast that with Systems Thinking and the fear that consultants will push it into the realm of a fad.
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 proven 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 we are focused on services and organisations. I sometimes fail to recognise the relevance that an organisation has, with a natural element like a cell or a human body. And as such perhaps be courageous enough to create your own understanding of organisations when helping yourself to think more systemically, especially in the light of organisational trends as described by Frederic Laloux in the book Reinventing Organisations.
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 are required to 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 the Command & Control paradigm. 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.
Using Different Approaches
Systems thinkers can collide because they see the world in different ways, or they can see this as essential. We should examine the different ways they see the world rather than argue about the way the world ‘actually is’. In some circumstances one viewpoint will give you the traction to bring about improvement, in others a different viewpoint is needed. You can make an informed choice of which viewpoint ( and associated systems approaches) to start with but you will never really know until you are engaged in the process of using it. And you should be ready to switch as a project progresses. Best is to have a variety of viewpoints (and associated systems approaches) at your disposal. This ‘second-order’ thinking - concentrating on the nature of the systems approaches and what they can achieve, rather than pinning down what the world is like - is called critical systems thinking, perhaps most well defined by Prof Michael Jackson, OBE.
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, after 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