The world is complex and interconnected. When we pull one lever in a system, it ripples throughout. Pull the right levers and you can solve some of the most complex problems, pull the wrong one and it can be disastrous. This is why it is critical to take a systems approach when solving complex, or what Sally Uren, CEO at Forum of the Future, calls “wicked” problems.
Some of the greatest challenges we face today — climate change, extreme ocean stress, global poverty — fall into this category.
Step 1: Determine if you are dealing with a wicked problem
If your problem meets the following criteria, it requires systems thinking to bring about positive change. Wicked problems ...
- aren’t fully understood; no clear criteria for when the problem is ‘solved’
- unique, with no known precedent for a solution
- involve many stakeholders and perspectives, with potentially conflicting views
- have interconnected causes and drivers, and are part of a dynamic ecosystem
- aim to make sustained change at a broad scale
Step 2: Understand the end game
Systems thinking seeks to create system-wide change, which Forum of the Future defines as:
- the emergence of a new pattern of organization or system structure — that pattern being the physical structure, the flows and relationships or the mindsets or paradigms of a system, it is also a pattern that results in new goals of the system.
- a process of change that recognizes the world is complex and systemic, and therefore any change process operates from a systemic perspective. A perspective is a worldview that informs action.
- Values-free; however, many change agents see system change as a way to accelerate sustainability, social and ecological well-being.
Step 3: Convene key stakeholders
If we are to solve the world’s most complex problems, we can’t do it alone. As you begin to address the challenge convene key stakeholders – any people, groups, or organizations who might affect or be affected by the outcome of your work. Having diverse viewpoints, sensitivities and biases enriches strategy development.
Step 4: Do a check-in
Rather than the typical, formal introduction, go around the room popcorn style and have folks share who they are as well as where they are that day. Excited, exhausted, interested, eager, frustrated. By sharing feelings as well as mental state your team will have a clearer picture of the energy everyone is bringing to the table. Once everyone has shared the facilitator should summarize trends for the group.
Step 5: Develop a ‘How might we’ statement
When you frame a problem in the form of a “How might we …,” it sparks creativity and innovation. During the workshop, we developed our own questions and then shared them with other participants, but ideally this is done as a group exercise. IDEO, leaders in human-centered design, have great resources to walk you through this process.
Step 6: Diagnose your system + think about it from a multi-level perspective
Multi-level perspective was developed as a way of understanding the different levels at which change happens:
- Landscape: includes the natural environment, the demographics of society, the socio-political trends, as well as the cultural values or paradigm.
- Regime: social networks where markets, infrastructures, technology and policy have coalesced into stable configurations. There is usually a set of shared rules within the community that describes the current pattern or structure of the status quo.
- Niche: small networks of dedicated actors, often outside or on the edge of these regimes where radical or disruptive innovations develop.
“It isn’t like if you use this tool you can magically find a solution that makes everyone happy,” Rubenstein said. “It is hard, so you need to find people who are committed and ready to make a big change.”
Step 7: Design a strategy + implement
Creating strategies that drive change across landscape, regime and niche will exponentially increase your chances of success.
Systems are constantly changing and therefore require constant reassessment and iterative action. Determine the impact of your actions, and ask yourself how can we do things better and how can we do better things.
Admittedly, learning how to truly apply systems thinking requires far more time than this two-hour workshop allowed. Sign up for the in-depth course with Forum for the Future to truly develop the skills required when taking a systems approach.