Incubation and Echoes

Fixing the connection between causes and consequences might be the challenge for our time and requires new tools to meet it.

COVID-19 presents the perfect example of a type of ‘echo’ : a disconnection between the cause and the felt effect. Knowing how to engage in systems thinking is one way to better understand these effects in a way to deal with them better. COVID-19 is providing an idea case study on system dynamics, networks, and our understanding of time.

With COVID-19 a person who may be asymptomatic or have mild symptoms may pass the virus on to someone who may not feel the effects for up to two weeks later. This incubation period means that things are happening that are imperceptible to us and it provides a useful metaphor for what we’re seeing in society at large. What we are experiencing today is because of something that happened two weeks ago, imperceptibly. It’s like an echo.

Understanding how to see, evaluate, and act on these kinds of echoes are what we’ll need to not only deal with the virus, but the myriad health, social, economic, and environmental effects that it brings. We now turn to some of the resources available at our sister site on tools and methods at for some lessons.

Scoping Systems

The first step is to bound your system. It’s not enough to say everything is connected to everything else because you’ll find yourself lost. There are methods and approaches to boundaries that we can take. Emily Gates has written a useful introduction to the role of boundaries in shaping our understanding of systems. With these guidelines in place and boundaries selected the next step is ‘fitting’ them to your situation.

For that purpose, two simple criteria can be used to tell if you’ve bounded your system at the right level.

If you set your boundaries of inclusion in the system and find that you are lost and struggling to identify, map, or monitor the various interconnections, actors, actions, and outcomes within a system because there is too much to focus on then that is a sign you have bounded your system too loosely.

If you’re continuously finding yourself trying to explain what happened in the system by things outside of the boundaries, then you have bounded your system too tightly.

Visual Thinking

Another related strategy is to visualize what you see in your system. What you’ll find is that there might be more going on than you realize.

Visual thinking is taking your ideas and exploring the relationships between concepts, objects, people and things together. This is also a way to do what some call cognitive offloading or engage in what can be called distributed cognition when working with others. Visualizing is a way of thinking using creative tools and methods that can allow you to see relationships for any issue or problem that might not be obvious when working through them in your mind alone.

System Diagrams (Made Simple)

As an extension of visual thinking is the practice of constructing models of a system. System diagrams can be sophisticated, data-driven, and involve many people and sources of evidence. They can also be done very simply. Whether simple or complex, the key is making a diagram that is useful.

The tool that we often use at Cense is sketch mapping. It’s a simple, easy-to-learn, use, and interpret approach that can take much of the ‘mystery’ out of systems thinking. It is particularly useful when starting out and when there is not much data to explore. As time and learning continues, your team might wish to employ more sophisticated methods and draw on tools like those in the systemic design toolkit.


Sensemaking is a process of active learning and making-sense-of what we see, learn, and experience. It’s done when there is no ‘obvious’ answer or that the information we are receiving is highly contextual. Sensemaking is a process and can be facilitated by tools or simple models like the one that has been developed by the RSA in the UK.

We explored what it means to do sensemaking in a crisis and profiled the tool below as one way to organize what we have to help envision our options better.

Smallest Visible Systems

Once we have an idea of what is going on, the next step is trying to act and influence what we see around us. The concept of the smallest visible system is one way to help us focus our efforts on those parts of a system — one that might be highly dynamic and fast-changing — that we can reasonably influence, rather than trying to affect change in ways that are beyond our influence.

This approach looks at what you can influence and provides guidance for how to influence systems and then scale your perception and understanding over time. This entire approach was discussed in greater detail in a recorded webinar conversation I had with Liz Weaver as part of the Tamarack Community’s ongoing learning series. Liz’s write-up and commentary on the discussion is particularly useful as a profile of how we can ‘nudge‘ change along.

The complexity of the current times suggest we need tools and strategies that allow us to see the causes, consequences, signals and echoes better to act wisely in the face of uncertainty. These different approaches can be a starting point for guiding you along a much longer journey toward innovation, adaptation, and resilience.

Photo by Leon Liu on Unsplash and Kaleidico on Unsplash — thanks for sharing your work with the world

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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