Mindsets for changing systems

Many of the global challenges we face are highly complex and intractable. They can often feel daunting, frustrating and require mountains of patience to work on. The practice of systems thinking offers a way to understand and start tackling these challenges. Some academics talk about the most difficult challenges as being “super wicked” problems because:

  • The challenge is urgent, putting large populations at risk;
  • Time is running out;
  • The central authority needed to address it is weak or non-existent;
  • Those seeking to solve the problem are also causing it;
  • Policies discount future irrationally.

A few years ago, I wrote about this in relation to the future of food and farming. Other obvious “super wicked” challenges are responding to climate breakdown and biodiversity collapse. In my work with Forum for the Future, systems change is a speciality. One of the important aspects I’ve learnt over the last couple of years is the “ways of a systems thinker”. These are the capabilities and mindsets we need to have when working to shift entire systems.

The table below shares some of these capabilities for people, organisations and society at large. This is taken from Forum’s Future of Sustainability 2018 report and draws on the work of my colleague Anna Birney, who is a fountain of knowledge on systems change and wrote this practitioner’s companion about it after her PhD:

Perhaps it’s confirmation bias but it does feel that systems thinking is gaining more traction in sustainability. Another organisation putting systems thinking into practice is the Omidyar Network who have put together this helpful video on systems thinking mindsets:

Key notes from this video on systems change mindsets:

1) Seek health, not “mission accomplished”: More often than not, complex challenges don’t get solved. They are constantly evolving without a finish line, and we must constantly work to improve the health of the system. Leading a healthy lifestyle is a good example of this. Another example is climate change, which has often been talked about like it’s a problem we can solve. However, it’s now becoming clear how climate change will always be a problem, and that’s not to diminish its seriousness and profound consequences.

2) Seek patterns, not just problems: we have a natural inclination to tackle problems head-on. Rather than focusing on the problem itself, it’s important to find the patterns behind a problem. These patterns are what’s driving an unhealthy system.

3) Unlock change, don’t impose it: when looking at a complex challenge, we can easily get fixated on looking for the broken part of the system and parachuting in a fix. This doesn’t often work in complex challenges. Instead, we need to weaken the forces making the system unhealthy and strengthen the forces that make it healthier.

4) Plan to adapt, don’t stay the course: we often have a tendency to find a solution and stick to a fixed course until it’s solved. But dynamic systems are always shifting and our understanding changes as we learn more. We need to be flexible in our solutions as we work to improve the health of a system.