Systems Perceiving

Systems are all around us, yet the levers to change them are hard to spot. Knowing what to look for can make the difference.

A system is a bounded set of interconnections (relationships) that have a purpose and perceptions (i.e., positions). Of these four qualities it is the last that is often the most problematic for people, yet it defines everything that comes before it. Position is what determines what boundaries we assign, the relationships we sense and perceive, and the purpose we ascribe or deduce of any system.

Position in systems terms means that a system is perceived differently depending on where in the system you’re viewing it. Understanding how and what we see and who perceives different things is a critical factor in shaping what we can do to facilitate (or prevent) systems transformation.

Systems Change: The Case of Hospital-Based Infections

To illustrate, consider the matter of reducing infections for those admitted to hospitals. Infections are among the most significant and often hidden health problems associated with any visit to a hospital. Among the various strategies that can reduce hospital-based infections is regular, persistent, and effective hand-washing among staff. So, too, is proper storage, disposal, cleaning, and maintenance of equipment, facilities and supplies.

From a systems perspective, who do you think should be involved in consulting and exploring the solutions to hospital-based infection control?

  • Doctors
  • Nurses
  • Patients
  • Orderlies
  • Hospital administrators
  • Medical residents & trainees
  • Allied health professionals
  • Cleaners
  • Families
  • Office receptionists
  • Mechanical services
  • Food service staff
  • Delivery personnel
  • Suppliers
  • Product designers & manufacturers

Those near the top of the list are those associated with health care. Those nearer to the bottom are those associated with the running of the building and service to those inside it. Who do you pick? Some? All? Who’s perspective is worth considering?

The answer depends on how you bound your system (who’s in, who’s out) and what value you attribute to each perspective.

You might find the discussion of this matter of perspective more than just a thought experiment by listening to Art Assoiants and I talk about service design and systems thinking bringing up the topic of cleaners and their role in organizations on a recent episode of his Let’s Develop podcast.

Differences and similarities

Perceptions of the system are not just a matter of selection and choice, but also of interactions between those perspectives. To illustrate, consider the three lines below on the right in light of the one on the left: which one is the same length?

Solomon Asch’s Visual Conformity Experiment

Did you select Option A? How confident are you that you’re correct?

What if the same task was presented to you in a room with seven to ten others and in a public vote every single one of them picked C? How confident would you be then? Psychologist Solomon Asch (PDF) asked this same question and found that many people’s confidence would be shaken and that more than one third would be willing to accept that C is indeed the same length as A. His study used confederates to purposefully vote for the incorrect line (Option A is the correct one) changing people’s confidence in their own perception.

Why does this matter? What matters is that we can hold a perspective — a valid one — and be swayed to deny it, obscure it, or change it — in the face of dissent. What this means is that issues of power, influence, and leverage can shift how we create change in complex systems and what we see.

Seeing Opportunities

What do you see in the system(s) you’re looking to influence?

Our perceptions of the system are a double-edged sword: they benefit us and introduce enormous risk. To best amplify the advantages, consider the following:

  • Evaluation provides a means of gathering data on your activities and those multiple perspectives that are so valuable. Sometimes we miss things hidden in plain sight. Evaluation can provide us with the means to monitor and track activity within a system to help reveal hidden patterns and structures. As articulated in a post on Cense.ca the ability to see what is hidden in plain is one of evaluation’s hidden advantages.
  • The key is to gather an appropriate diversity of perspectives in data collection that reflect the purpose of the system and also have the potential to provide useful alternative perspectives. Visualizing these perspectives is one of the powerful ways to articulate what is seen and uncover the hidden structures associated with a system. Tools like those in the Systemic Design Toolkit and simple system methods like sketch mapping can serve to literally get people on the same page.
  • Once gathered, we can use a structured process to validate these perspectives to guard against the kind of group conformity that Asch studied. Software like Sensemaker from Cognitive Edge is one option. There are a variety of processes and tools that can be used to gather, organize, display, and solicit feedback on different perspectives.
  • A sensemaking process is what enables us to uncover the various meanings and determine which ones are most useful given the situation and the desired goals. The key is ensuring that the process you undertake is aligned with the purpose of the system you are studying. It’s not ‘anything goes’, but a highly focused, strategic process.

By considering perspectives as a force shape our understanding of systems we also open opportunities to engage those with a stake (both visible and hidden) in the problem and potential solution in conversation about how to address it. This is what can bring together the benefits of systems thinking and design and get us moving from talking about change, to making it happen.

Note: If systems understanding and change is something your organization or network is wrestling with, reach out and I can help you in working through this process, finding, selecting, and gathering the various perspectives you need to make system change real.

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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