Top 10: systems thinking skills to cultivate in uncertain & tumultuous times
April 9, 2020

The discipline of systems thinking is more than just a collection of tools and methods – it’s also an underlying philosophy.

Many beginners are attracted to the tools, such as causal loop diagrams and management flight simulators, in hopes that these tools will help them deal with persistent business problems. But systems thinking is also a sensitivity to the circular nature of the world we live in; an awareness of the role of structure in creating the conditions we face; a recognition that there are powerful laws of systems operating that we are unaware of; a realization that there are consequences to our actions that we are oblivious to.

In general, the systems thinking perspective requires curiosity, clarity, compassion, choice, and courage. This approach includes the willingness to see a situation more fully, to recognize that we are interrelated. 

Ask yourself, how can I analyze the situation all of us are facing in order to have a better impact in my society?  Here we compile 10 recommendations by Dr Elizabeth Sawin, Co-Founder of Climate Interactive. 

 

1. Multisolving.

Do not sub-estimate any effort, any donation, claim, or a petition signed is important now more than ever:

How can my one action accomplish multiple goals? Micro: a donation to the local food pantry helps feed my community now and strengths our civic infrastructure for the future. Macro: a green stimulus could fight inequity, climate change & economic shocks.

2. Repurposing.

How can the structures we’ve built contribute to well-being now, under changed circumstances?

While students are at home, the school bus delivers lunch to the school bus stops throughout town. Unemployment system reshaped to also include freelancers. Also: Hotels used quarantine centers. Production lines retooled to make ventilators. Distilleries making hand sanitizer.

We are witnessing now collective efforts that confirm the power of our human creativity.

3. Visioning.

What do I really want to see in my life, my town, the world?

Daring to picture that in vivid detail even while having no idea how to get there. Without these visions, what are you multisolving or repurposing for?

Envisioning a renewed life fitting into a new world is key to guide your efforts. 

4. Orienting by ethics.

The practice of navigating by a moral compass. Ethics are ‘rules for what works’ in complex systems. You are unique and precious and so is every other being. No one is safe until everyone is safe. Equity is not optional.

In this time of uncertainty and systems change, guide your decisions by my human values.

5. Balancing.

Keeping steady. Self-regulation at all scales. Am I tired, hungry, afraid, been online too long? Is my community over-focused on the short-term?

Attending to any parameter (number of laid off workers comes to mind or annual GHG emissions) blasting out of control.

6. Growing.

Tapping the power of reinforcing feedback. Taking ideas and innovations to scale. Stories, possibilities and examples (and also warnings and lessons learned) spreading, by word of mouth, at the speed of zoom.

7. Action-learning.

Up against problems that are also growing exponentially, delay is the enemy. Acting, even if you don’t know everything (or even very much) is preferable to paralysis or ‘wait and see’. But act humbly, knowing that you don’t know nearly everything, and embracing and sharing your mistakes. Design the learning loop (the after action review) into everything.

8. Truth-telling.

You can’t navigate one crisis, let alone multiple intersecting ones with a distorted information stream. Accurate timely data (both numerical and qualitative) are needed more than ever. And pay attention to who tells the stories and what (and who) they include. These times call for deep reflection and honest sharing and allegiance to leaders who do the same, and who thus will not look certain, or ‘strong’ by the standards of the recent past.

9. Cultivating coherence.

the property where across scales and domains the same set of organizing principles are applied. This allows for improvisation and spreading of innovation. And those shared organizing principles come from #3 and #4 vision and ethics.

10. Connecting.

Tapping the power of emergence, where new connections lead to the emergence of new patterns of behavior in systems. A super-power on this list because it amplifies all the others.

Dr. Elizabeth Sawin

Co-founder co-director @climateinteract

Multisolving for people and climate.