Systems Thinking

In a previous blog post I described the sorts of reading I’ve been doing to get a wider perspective while I’m on a career break.

Confession. I’m still not sure if this thirst for learning is because not working is freeing up cognitive surplus to give me the headspace to follow my curiosity … or if it is part of my career break to rethink my purpose. Certainly I am vigilant to wherever “digital” gets mentioned, as a solution or a problem, as a symptom or a cause. I’m really trying not to see everything through the lens of my own life experience and professional knowledge, but I don’t always manage that.

Anyway, I have benefitted from lots of learning opportunities recently, including various free webinars, a fantastic 12 week School for Data Leaders (2022 course registration available now), an excellent Charity IT Leaders conference and currently an enlightening FutureLearn course on Systems Thinking for Sustainability. I should add I have also joined a gym and boxsetted Nine Perfect Strangers and The White Lotus, so it’s not all deep thought ;-).

But for what it’s worth, here’s some of the deep stuff …

Image: Books and Courses I have been working through

My FutureLearn course on Systems Thinking for Sustainability is exploring how we define sustainability so that we can make meaningful decisions about it. The course is from Except: Integrated Sustainability and I’m 70% through. I am reading everything they suggest and finding it fascinating: both the systems thinking and the sustainability examples. Here is a mindmap of some of the concepts that come up as I think this through with a particular emphasis on how organisations make change happen:

Mindmap of systems thinking around sustainability, Amber Thomas 2021

In all my reading and listening, Inclusivity and Diversity pop up in multiple guises, more of that below. And I have been unpacking the distinctions between digital, data and IT, and finding that they are each fuzzy definitions themselves. So these are the questions at the forefront of my mind:

The Socio-Economic Angle on Sustainability

How can humanity can continue to live on spaceship earth in the anthrocopene era? How do we address the social and economic dimensions that limit or enable changing our relationship to the planet? I understand that social justice is entangled with the changes we need to make for the climate emergency. Ideas like universal basic income and localised decision making are particularly resonant here.

The Importance of Inclusivity and Diversity

Diversity of voice, of participation, of the diversity of thought necessary for addressing climate change, inclusive growth as social justice as a necessary criteria for solutions to climate change. I’ve been reading about how looking at problems differently leads to different solutions. Only last week the investigation into the UK government’s handling of Covid named groupthink as a problem. When our decision-making process is aimed getting consensus, that can constrain thinking to those options that are more acceptable to the majority. But those options aren’t necessarily the best option. Supporting the outlier options might be where the real bravery comes in. Who decides if its time for bravery, amidst dissent, and how do they know if they’re right?

Where does “Digital” fit with all this?

Digital can be an enabler, a driver, a lens, a reflection, a description. It is not a noun, nor is it a destination. It is a vehicle, a means of travel. Digital can support a connected social fabric, but in that function it can amplify the bad as well as the good. Algorithms as artefacts of human framing, with all our weaknesses, as ways of utilising big data to spot patterns. Can you have digital without IT? Can you have IT without data, or data without digital? How are these domains interlinked, and what organisational designs nurture the right responsibilities in the right places? My readings are focussed mainly on the climate emergency but a common theme there is the way that technology can be a problem or a solution. Within that, digital technologies can connect people and ideas, broker money and resources, and process data to inform better decisions. So I am listening out for that intersect of tech-for-good and sustainability

Framing and Perspective

I am working through the audiobook of “Framers” and finding it very insightful. As I said in my blog post about getting a wider perspective, there’s a lot to do to find the right framing to identify what needs to be done:

* Models can help describe and navigate complexity but messiness is natural.

* In new and changing situations, groupthink should particularly be avoided.

* We need diversity of thought to tackle (the climate emergency), and we need to be willing to throw away beliefs about humanity that are not useful to us.

from A Wider Perspective

Metaphors of change

Sometimes the models we use to plan and implement change seem to treat organic human systems as construction projects or machines. Is there a hope that with the right project/development framework, success is guaranteed? That seems unlikely: so many change projects are more like captaining a ship across stormy seas, and if progress is made in the right direction, that is success. The change journey rarely feels how we thought it would feel. I’ve written about my change and transformation philosophy before. Whats interesting from my reading is how often I am seeing descriptions of complexity and change through metaphors of flow, fluidity, agriculture, organic messiness. I have often felt ill-at-ease with the sanitised language of organisational change management, as if all change just needs to be well planned and “managed through”. Messier and muddier models feel more truthful to me.

And on that note, a quick summary from Jesse’s Farm:


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