Systems Thinking and Systemic Action Aren’t The Same Thing

We need systemic action informed by systems thinking to address the global challenges facing humanity. Alas, too many are focused on the thinking (and talk), not action.

My aim for writing this is because I believe strongly in the potential of systems thinking for action. I don’t see much hope for humans if we can’t muster systemic action at a local, regional and global scale. But for systems thinking to aid systemic change we need to convert words and models into action.

I’ve been engaged in systems thinking since my first undergraduate course in psychology when my professor showed Powers of Ten by Ray and Charles Eames in our first lecture. I was hooked and spent a career learning all I could about systems science and the various theories, models and techniques associated with what is called systems thinking. This field spans many subspecialties and domains of practice that include network studies, system dynamics, complexity science, and cybernetics (plus many others).

I came to teach systems approaches in my graduate behaviour change course at the University of Toronto. That part of the course was so popular that students asked for a stand-alone course, which I taught for three years at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health. In that course, I introduced students to a variety of methods, tools, theories and ideas about systems with the aim that they inform our actions as professionals. I would always stress that if these methods weren’t practical, they weren’t of much value to public health. We had a responsibility to use what we learned to make a positive difference where we could.

I love intellectual conversations and philosophy of science. I’ve taken part in many debates and arguments about the epistemic value of systems approaches and enjoyed them, but I always recognize these for what they were: explorations of ideas. They weren’t devising solutions to problems or addressing situations — at least not directly. The seduction of systems thinking often sways people to believing they are tackling big, important problems when what they are doing is arguing about ideas.

Some of this has to do with the challenging, difficult, sometimes complicated nature of systems concepts. But being clever about concepts isn’t the same as taking wise action.

From Ideas to Actions: Fooling Ourselves?

I’ve seen too many conversations about systems thinking that leads me to believe that those involved think they are taking systemic action. Whether its meetups, professional association gatherings, Twitter exchanges, or LinkedIn posts, the pattern continues: someone shares some theory or shares a model and others chime in to claim the virtues of the ideas as practical means to solving complex problems. It’s as if being able to see a system is all we need to do.

Except, we need more. For all of the benefits that well-known systems thinkers like Donella Meadows, Peter Senge, W. Edwards Deming and Russell Ackoff (and many others) have granted us with their ideas, their influence is limited by the actions taken using them to influence the world using those ideas. In other words: for all the talk of concepts like system dynamics, leverage points, network effects, and tipping points the amount of specific action taken using these is relatively small.

I know this from hundreds of conversations I’ve had with systems thinkers over my career and by asking two simple questions: 1) “how did you use that (theory, model, method)?” and 2) what did it accomplish?

I used to be a regular participant in systems conferences, events, and scientific meetings. I was someone who advocated for and taught these methods and theories in my university classes, research programs, and professional advocacy. I don’t mention systems all that much any more in my work. It’s not that I don’t believe in these ideas, it’s that I don’t believe (much) in their utility.

All you need to do is search for “solving wicked problems” and you’ll see the folly. (Note: wicked problems are not solved, and they are often not problems in the first place, but situations). I see it everywhere systems thinking is discussed. When folks are not using the theories about systems incorrectly or incompletely, they are claiming impact on the world where it doesn’t exist.

Uncomfortable Truths About Systems Thinking

It makes for uncomfortable conversations sometimes when asking people about their work. Systems maps, models, and theories require a lot of effort to generate; it’s not easy. But that doesn’t change the fact that much of what we hear in systems circles is just talk.

  • Mapping the system is not changing the system. If no one follows the map or they do and it leads to a different destination — it’s not a valid map?
  • Proposing a model of change is not enacting change in the system.
  • Understanding dynamics does not affect those dynamics in practice.
  • Labelling something as complex or complicated doesn’t infer any wisdom about what that means for shaping a system using that understanding.
  • Tools or techniques like synthesis or gigamaps, system dynamics models, network diagrams, or rich pictures all describe systems and (maybe) suggest things to try, they aren’t guidelines for action. At best, they offer suggestions of where to begin.

None of this means that systems models, theories, and the discussions around them are useless. Knowing where to begin is very helpful. When skillfully facilitated processes include systems visualizations, it can inspire useful conversations for revealing assumptions or patterns. But seeing patterns is not action. Like foresight and futures work, our ideas must evoke something that changes what we do if they are to be considered worthwhile in our efforts to make a positive difference in the world.

Systemic Action and Evaluation

I’ve seen too much talk about ‘changing the world’ by people who devote their lives to theory and modelling without any substantive evidence of contribution to change-making. And no, teaching others to do the same thing isn’t a contribution if it just breeds more talk or impotent model-building. Creating communities of conversation around systems can be energizing and intellectually invigorating, but it won’t change anything if those ideas stay in that community and aren’t translated into actions that make a positive difference.

Knowing that something can serve as a leverage point isn’t helpful without a fulcrum and the means to push it.

Evaluation and systems thinking isn’t as common as it ought to be. There are examples where the two have come together such as the seminal work in tobacco control led by the National Cancer Institute in the United States that looked at how systems science could inform policy, research and action. During the process of implementing the ideas from that work (which I was a part of ) we talked a lot about evaluation.

Evidence connecting systems thinking and systems change is thin, because (I suspect) gathering it is difficult and when talk is so valued. When it comes to practical systems thinking, we don’t have much in the way of evidence saying “we labelled X and that helped us achieve Y and Z.” Or “we modelled X system, built a structure for making decisions based on this, and achieved A, B and C as a result of those decisions and that process for making them.” Or how about: “by identifying this as a complex system using [framework], we were able to do L, M and N in accordance with complexity principles that achieved beneficial responses otherwise unlikely to happen”

None of this is to say that there isn’t truth in what systems theories and models have to offer. It’s only that these are largely buttressed by belief not data. In challenging, volatile situations I’m Ok with belief and strong theory guiding my actions in the absence of evidence, but I need to call it what it is.

Evaluation can help us boost our evidence portfolio. It can channel systems thinking to guide our systemic actions.

So next time you see a model or if you think to create one, ask about how you know it reflects reality. Asking the questions and bringing some evaluative thinking to your systems thinking might lead to systemic action.

If you’re looking to level-up your systems thinking and systemic action with evaluative thinking and better design, let’s grab a coffee and see how I can help.

Image credits from Allison Saeng, used under license.

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