Systems Thinking – Part 3: From Chaos to Calm

The previous blog addressed the more general nature of systems thinking. It briefly descripted the six phases of systems thinking:  Launch; Discovery; Build Maps; Find Leverage; Act Strategically and Learn.

This blog completes our conversation by describing the following phases: building maps, finding leverage, acting strategically, and learning. 

A system means a configuration of parts connected and joined together by a web of relationships. Systems thinking and the practice of systems thinking is a set of methods and ways to identify and address challenges, to find underlying patterns, locate leverage points, and choose actions that may provide healthier outcomes.

Build Maps

At this point in systems thinking, you’ll be looking for a deep structure to serve as the anchor point for your overall map. You can also start to find the deep structure by clustering similar loops together and then labeling the clusters. The cluster labels are used on the deep structure. 

The following is an example of a deep structure map: 

U.S. Household Financial Security–> Intensity of Consumer Financial Pain Points –>Adequacy of Financial Sector Responsiveness–>Degree of Consumer Trust and Engagement–> Appeal of Inappropriate Alternative Financial Services (AFS) –>U.S. Household Financial Security …

Another way to think about a deep structure is that this is your theory of change. Your goal is to improve a system’s health. 

A theory of change is your means of creating systems-level change through a series of actions with a focus on the leverage points. This is a model that specifies the underlying logic, assumptions, influences, causal linkages, and expected outcomes of a project.  The theory of change uses your previously created systems maps to ensure that you can specify the impact of your work. Ultimately, the theory of change re-arranges your systems map to show increasing levels of abstraction from inputs to ultimate impact. It provides an overall statement of how you will address your guiding and near star. Theories of change relate to each leverage point.

The theory of change format looks like this:  Inputs –> activities –> outputs –> outcomes –> impact.

For example: Provide capital –> to help start and support businesses –> which will lead to more business creation –> increasing employment in certain areas –> create more upward mobility. 

What is the narrative that explains the deep structure or theory of change? Here is the narrative for the above deep structure:

The intensity of consumer financial pain points is a dominant theme. As U.S. households’ financial security increases, the intensity of consumer pain points decreases and the adequacy of the financial sector responsiveness increases. Thus, the degree of consumer trust and engagement then increases, increasing the appeal of appropriate alternative financial services. As AFS increases, U.S. household financial security further increases.

Now, you can bring the loops together to build your overall map. Put the deep structure in the middle and then connect all loops to the deep structure either directly or indirectly. Now, continue to refine your clusters and try to delete redundancies or illogical loops and linkages. Is each loop adding information, evidence-based, and can anything be simplified to reduce clutter?

At this point, create your complete narrative about the system.  The map’s visualization and the story become ways you can share your work with others. Your narrative should at least (a) explain the guiding star and near star; (b) the process highlights to develop the map; (c) tell the core story which includes a brief description of the map’s essence; (d) walk through the deep structure factor by factor in a manner that is compelling and evidence-based; and (e) work through the map’s regions and show how the regions are connected together. 

Now, share your map and narrative with several different audiences. The purpose of these sharing experiences is to gain feedback on your work. Be sure to have your audience to tell you what resonates with them, what surprises them, what does not make sense, and what do they think is missing. 

Find Leverage

You are now ready to find places that, if engaged, have the greatest potential to create change with comparatively modest effort. Your goal is to use your work from previous phases to find ways to move the system to a healthier level.

Identify places where the system is

  • Frozen: behavior is deeply entrenched and unlikely to change in the near future;
  • Where there is pent-up energy for change:
  • Any places where new patterns are starting to emerge;
  • Any bright spots? Where is the positive change happening?
  • Look for strong dynamics and factors that have the potential to impact many other factors or dynamics.

Can you tell a narrative around these identified points? Take the identified points and develop a list of leverage points – points where you have the greatest potential for change with a relatively modest effort.

Describe how engaging with the leverage point will strengthen a positive dynamic; weaken a negative dynamic; shift a dynamic from negative to positive; create a new dynamic; or shorten or speed-up a time delay. 

Develop hypotheses “if we do _________ then the impact will be on (map areas)   __________ because ________ .”

You could create these statements for various time frames: short-term, mid-range, and long-term.

Try to create a priority list of your leverage hypotheses.  Identify assumptions behind each hypothesis and verify that you have the hypothesis in the correct priority order. 

Do the leverage points and hypotheses help you address your guiding star and near star? Do the leverage points relate to your theory of change?

I add an additional requirement for work on social challenges, i.e., the principle of targeted universalism. This requirement is an identification of challenges particular to marginalized people, proposing a solution, and then broadening its scope to cover as many people as possible. 

Act Strategically; Learn; Adapt

You will want to pursue several leverage areas in line with your theory of change. Consider these questions:

  • How might you exploit several leverage areas in combination to amplify the impact?
  • How might you learn quickly from your mistakes – can you create some experiments to test the efficacy of the leverage actions?
  • Who else should be involved?  How should they be involved?  What influence do you have on them?
  • How can you partner to address the leverage points?

Develop a strategy of how you will go about implementing your ideas. Define your tactics after defining the implementation ideas. How will you go about implementing your strategy? Make this tactical consideration the last thing that you do.

You are now armed with methods for systems thinking. Good luck and reach out if you have any comments, suggestions, or questions. 


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