This blog is part of an online learning platform which includes the Pathways to New Community Paradigms Wiki and a number of other Internet based resources to explore what is termed here 'new community paradigms' which are a transformational change brought about by members of a community.

It is intended to offer resources and explore ideas with the potential of purposefully directing the momentum needed for communities to create their own new community paradigms.

It seeks to help those interested in becoming active participants in the governance of their local communities rather than merely passive consumers of government service output. This blog seeks to assist individuals wanting to redefine their role in producing a more direct democratic form of governance by participating both in defining the political body and establishing the policies that will have an impact their community so that new paradigms for their community can be chosen rather than imposed.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Sailing Complex and Wicked Seas with Icebergs (Systems Thinking)

It has, once again, been some time since the last posting on these pages. As usual, it was in part because of discovering new learning opportunities and exploring them with different systems thinking models. It is now past the beginning of a new year and a good time again to take stock and establish some sense of bearings before plotting future courses.

For about the last two years, and particularly since attaining a Systems Thinking Certification, this blog has focused on exploring how systems thinking could be utilized by change efforts in improving community engagement and by promoting participatory and deliberative democracy as part of community governance. Whether this actually could be beneficial and how it could best be used is still being tested.

In making the case that systems and systems thinking really are a thing that could be applied to these areas of change requires at the same time keeping true to the course with systems thinking principles. Both are needed, like using both longitude and latitude to keep a ship on course. Both are part of the same global grid but each is determined differently, together requiring new means of navigation. The danger is not in getting lost east and west or north and south but being either marooned by one's own limited perspective or being lost in a complex sea of interactions. A primary tool for navigating systems is the systems map.

All system maps, whether by Kumu, Insight Maker or the newly discovered DSRP Meta maps are self-contained, in a box both figuratively, in focusing on only relevant determined connections and literally, being displayed on a screen or paper to be used jointly by everyone on the same journey.

There is still a struggle in communicating systems thinking concepts to those not only not familiar but who also tend to more direct, concrete results-oriented approaches. A difficulty with communicating between on-the-ground, pragmatic change efforts and systems thinking is that even when using the same terms, we often don't mean the same thing even with the word system itself.

Ludwig von Bertalanffy, a founder of general systems theory, defined a system as an entity which maintains its existence through the interaction of its parts, the key element being "interaction," rather than "parts". It is the interaction of its parts that brings about emergent, 'bigger than the whole' and often nearly impossible to contain, complex characteristics of a system. The actual system, not the map which merely contains one's journey through the real system.

We often talk about fighting, “The System”. Classifying something as “The System” though has one of two problems. It either implies some impenetrable edifice that we have no control over or that we are the center and controlling entity of the system. Also, when we attempt to define, “The System, as something other than evil, we invariably get it wrong, not only its scope but in creating any collective definition of what the “System” actually is that we are attempting to change.

It is, 'a system'. A system which will have attributes, regardless of size or complexity in common with other systems. Strategies that can work in one system can work in another system depending upon how well we map them. Seeing something as a system rather than as, "The System" gives it a lot less power. What we need then is a better understanding of what a system is, what we can do to change one, and what we cannot or should not do.

The need to verify that basic principles of systems thinking are being followed is constant. Especially in terms of the George Box principle, "All models are wrong, some models are useful." Not only wrong in being incomplete copies or maps of reality but as in being limited perspectives, especially one's own. This can involve more ambiguity and abstraction than which some are comfortable. Systems thinking can push us to consider issues and their influences that are larger than with what we feel we can manage, especially on our own. Wicked problems can be analogous to sailing through a massive storm on the sea. The system surrounding the ship can be overwhelming to the system on the ship so people end up arranging deck chairs.

One’s own frame of reference is also a box, arguably the most constraining box in exploring a system with others. One is always in a box and knowing that one is in a box is necessary for bridging one's own frame of reference and the frame of reference of another. This often involves bringing larger boxes or expanding the boundary of the map so the system mapped includes both or better all perspectives. In many instances going up to a larger box can be instructive but there is a point of diminishing returns and we may need to agree that a larger box is not a focus of our agreed upon inquiry.

Another principle is that something shouldn't be considered systemic, as in related to being a system, without causal feedback loops. The common dictionary definition of feedback, as information returned to a source to improve performance, is different though from that used by systems thinking as a circular chain of cause and effect or operationally in a variety of fields.

There is a particular Collective Impact perspective on feedback based on the importance of incorporating community feedback into the work of the larger partnership. Building up essential feedback loops could enable collective impact type work such as addressing persistently wide gaps in educational attainment between white and non-white within the education system. Efforts at making a change can call for the tangible prototyping of ideas, sharing what has been made, and then further iterating based on the feedback obtained as getting it right on the first go seldom happens.

Communities could though react and in trying to find some means of balancing conflicting influences such actions could feedback in unintended ways if not adequately understood. We need to go even further to understand the feedback loops comprising the system as what may be presumed to be working within a system may not always be the case.

Through Systems Thinking Certification, it was demonstrated that interactions can feedback to their point of origination into a loop changing the nature of those interactions over time with Moose and Wolves (IM-8590) and Sustaining the Forest Model (IM-8889). A system might break down at each stage of the process and resulting feedback can debilitate the entire system. Debilitate doesn't mean destroy and such systems can maintain their existence despite their lack of usefulness.

Feedback of causal loops can be chains or pathways of multiple positive and negative influences of either information, motivation or causal/correlation creating, at differing levels and degrees, the source of complexity within democratic systems of governance or any system. The essential aspect of looped causal feedback is that it is closed and therefore capable of being reiterated, meaning that the same looped pathway is followed but not that it results in the same outcome. A complex system could over time produce widely different results.

Not all chains of causal influences will be looped and only repeated on command or condition. I am terming these as processes which are the focus of complicated oriented top-down control management. Processes may be contained in looped causal pathways but perhaps not recognized as being as such because they require looking at a more encompassing level of systemic interaction to find the causal feedback loops.

One quick, easily, applied tool integrating systems thinking principles with effective change management at multiple levels is the Systems Thinking Iceberg model. The Systems Thinking Iceberg model doesn't have any feedback loops so how does it help? What role can it play in both systems thinking and applied fields of community engagement and change management?

The Systems Thinking Iceberg model can be a framework to assist bridging different frames of reference or perspectives and collaborating on choosing a course. The Systems Thinking Iceberg model can be applied to any system regardless of its size, level of abstraction or complexity.

The Systems Thinking Iceberg involves the entire system under consideration, the whole box, in which causal loop diagrams can help explain why events give rise to patterns and structures arise, and why from an overlaying structure emerge mental models of the system helping us to find leverage points.

Taken a further step, the organizing principles of the Systems Thinking Iceberg model can help us to better understand and utilize or leverage the feedback loops making up systems. It has been used by this blog in attempting to explain abstract principles of how external causal loops could influence a specific system to the extent that it becomes, in reality, part of a larger system needing to be addressed as with Complexity Assailing Our Communities, to develop deliberative systems to understand multiple, intertwined issues across multiple sectors as with Healthcare Costs, and to organize diverse entities to take action across different sectors to address common concerns through Collective Impact efforts. The organization, StrivingTogether can be seen as being directly connected with central themes making up the Collective Impact endeavor, particularly improving patterns displayed through the Feedback Culture Sector Map.

The question then still remains, what specific system are we defining? Are we all talking about the same system, in terms of scope, abstraction, complexity, understanding and potential action? The Systems Thinking Iceberg is adaptable to both finding and of assistance in navigating the system under consideration by whichever map is agreed upon. Once bearings have been established, there are more developed resources in navigating new courses such Donella Meadows 12 Leverage Points or System Archetypes but in sailing complex seas the Systems Thinking Iceberg Model is a useful navigation tool.

Past Posts