System Entanglements and Change

‘New beginnings’ is a phrase that only works when both words are true and the systems around them support their realization.

Change is easy to call for and promise, yet far more difficult to deliver.

Among the greatest myths of behaviour change are the role individuals play in shaping their actions and the related outcomes. While no change can take place without individuals making that change happen, the truth is that systems have influence that gets undue attention relative to things like motivation, decision-making, and mindsets.

Systems are those structural elements social, political, environmental, economic, values-based, cultural (and sometimes technological), and physical — that organize activities. These are the things that go beyond ourselves and shape our interactions with the world. They don’t control them, but their influence cannot be overstated.

To illustrate, consider the idea of walking to work. That choice to walk to work (versus other means) is defined by where you live (and where you can afford to live relative to work), the weather in your town, the safety of the neighbourhoods you have to pass through, the availability of a sidewalk, the amount of ‘gear’ you need to port to work and home each day (which is based partly on your job and its expectations, the tools required, the ability to store things at any given location and more), the time you have to undertake this, the clothing you need at work and on the way (e.g., wet-wear vs. business clothes), and so on.

The choice to walk, which might be made out of an interest in reducing a carbon footprint and increasing physical activity, is not just about motivation and interest: it’s about systems. One has to account for all of the systems that shape our choices.

Entangled Systems and Intentions

What makes many systems a structural element of our lives is that they hold up and shape so many activities and are difficult to change. Just as it’s easier to change the furniture, paint colour, or lighting in a room than the actual room dimensions itself which requires structural change.

Our systems are often so taken for granted that we fail to see them until they are disrupted. Consider the massive disruption we’ve witnessed in the past twelve months.

Less than 12 months ago from the time of this writing most of the world was in some form of physical restrictions (lockdowns) as the COVID-19 virus spread across the globe. Within weeks, we saw things like balcony operas, pots-and-pans rituals celebrating healthcare workers, shuttered restaurants making meals for isolated seniors and front-line workers, and empty city streets.

We also saw a rise in attention paid to the negative mental health consequences this isolation, economic uncertainty and financial stress, the lack of social engagement in the world, and the fear of a virus presented us. People were compassionate, caring, and thoughtful. Community and social connections had new meaning.

A year later, the fatigue of COVID is as large as ever and yet, things have begun to feel far closer to normal in a very abnormal way. That is the power of systems and their entanglement with everyday life. The system of a Western-style work ethic and productivity expectation is one of them. Parenting expectations, learning expectations, and career expectations are others. What I’ve witnessed in 2021 is a very tired return to much of what we had in the first pre-pandemic period of 2020.

Compassion has faded and been replaced with expectation, again.

System Spotting

One of the ways we change systems is by identifying them and making them visible. We cannot even begin to undo the knots of entangled systems if we don’t know what those systems are. This is where the emergent field of systemic design comes in.

Systemic design is about understanding and articulating the systems we see and envisioning the systems we want. It involves plenty of research and attention to the social, structural, and psychological aspects of human and natural systems.

The steps to begin this are straightforward, yet are often missed because we are so often trapped in the invisible cage of our own making — systems that aren’t visible.

  1. Think visually. Notice what’s going on and start to visualize the connections between ideas, concepts, structures, and energy. Simple system sketches is all you need (here’s how to make them).
  2. Surface the rules that shape how these systems connect together. (here’s how)
  3. Identify where the energy goes — what requires energy (and how much) and what could benefit from more energy (and attention)
  4. Act on the smallest system you can and then scale your choices further. By working from the small, it is easier to understand the pull of bigger systems and allows you to gain some measure of control
  5. Evaluate and design as you go.
  6. Repeat

As I write this I think back to what’s drawn me — and so many of my colleagues, friends, and clients — away from that point of compassion and community that we had just a few months ago and am reminded how if we are to create a better ‘next’ for us all, we need to remind ourselves of how the systems that led us to here can serve us or hinder those efforts.

Unless we recognize them and name them we are bound to go back into the tangled web of what came before while all of us are a little less than we were when we started.

Photo by Rosie Kerr on Unsplash and Federico Beccari 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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