Systems Design And Successful Change

Want to make a new start or a big change this year? Consider looking at your systems, not yourself, first.

It’s the time of year when people look at what was done and what is to come in the months ahead. The change of season, the changing calendar, and now the changing decade combined with the (in the North at least) long nights and short days and holiday season make for the perfect combination of reflection and planning.

Yet, there is an abundance of evidence on things like New Years resolutions that suggests they aren’t all that effective. Part of the reason is that the changes we wish to make are taking place in complex systems where even our most well-thought out plans are likely to encounter resistance.

While there are some things we can do as individuals to prompt change and stick to a resolution, the biggest barrier is not our motivation, but our systems.

Change Base Layers

Energy is one of the prerequisites for change. Habits become habitual because they help us conserve energy by making things more streamlined. When those habits aren’t useful, it creates a barrier to change because the problem behaviour is easier to do as it take less energy to undertake than a new habit.

Energy is highly situation-dependent. It’s susceptible to things like rest, diet, available attentional resources, and emotional activation. It’s not something that’s all that good to rely on because it is so dependent on other factors. It’s not a good base-layer: that thing that supports what comes on top of it.

Behavioural design systems are.

They are the environmental and social structures that support our individual behaviour. An example of this is in changing the physical layout of your workspace. Open- and closed-layout offices produce different behavioural effects with respect to productivity and collaboration. While there is some debate over which is better, these physical formats do make a difference.

The software platforms and technological interfaces we use are another example of things that can change the way we work in subtle ways, yet with profound effects. The reason is that these small things shift everything else around them: what we look at, how we look at something, and even what comes before something else.

These are systems.

Systems Thinking for Change

The reason individual changes are difficult to sustain is that they bump up against the other behaviours and patterns that feed into or off of that original activity. The energy required to prompt and maintain that change is considerable, which is why we often fail to achieve the outcome we want.

Just as an interior designer wouldn’t imagine getting a single piece of art for a room and assume that it alone will make for a cosy, comfortable apartment, neither should a single change action do the same with something substantive. We need to consider the same thing.

Drawing on that example, a great designer likely would not assume that it is just art that will make a space more attractive, rather it would be the placement of furniture, the amount of and type of furniture, the lighting (more, less, type), and the various purposes a room might serve. The designer would seek to service as many of those conditions as much as possible to the degree of satisfaction — not always complete joy, even if that is the ultimate desired outcome — of their client.

The same is true for our systems. Until we’re willing to look at reshaping the various components of our systems and rethinking their structure, we are likely to be putting up paintings when we really need a whole room remodeled.

This season consider how you can build new systems for your behaviours. It doesn’t mean changing everything radically, but it does mean designing things to fit together.

Photo by Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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