Systemic Thinking and Whole Systems Change

Systems thinking, systemic thinking and ‘whole system change’ approaches have entered into a wide variety of different policy and practice areas, from recent approaches to obesity (Public Health England 2019) to policy evaluation using complexity (CECAN) and to the UK Cabinet Office ‘Systems Unit’ (Cabinet Office 2020).  Systems thinking has emerged from many sources but most commentators have identified broadly three ‘waves’ (Flood 2010; Burns 2007) which can be named as ‘systems thinking’, ‘soft systems thinking’ and ‘systemic thinking’. Yet all are influenced by ‘a critique of reductionism’:

Reductionism generates knowledge and understanding of phenomena by breaking them down into constituent parts and then studying these simple elements in terms of cause and effect. With systems thinking the belief is that the world is systemic, which means that phenomena are understood to be an emergent property of an interrelated whole. (Flood 2010: 269)

As such all waves are underpinned by insights of complexity theory, as introduced in an earlier blog. The most significant characteristics of complexity for our purposes are:

  • Non-linearity and emergence, where effects emerge from relationships and interactions in ways which are unpredictable.
  • self-organization, where the nature of the system constantly adapts as actions are adjusted in dynamic relationship and where effects are generated and develop patterns without any conscious plan or imposed authority.
  • path dependence, that over time certain patterns become established that make certain other future effects more likely.

As Donatella Meadows puts is: ‘A system is more than the sum of its parts. It may exhibit adaptive, dynamic, goal-seeking, self-preserving, and sometimes evolutionary behavior’ (Meadows 2008:12).

Yet – while they have this anti-reductionism in common – the different waves of systems/systemic thinking have operated with quite distinct ontologies and epistemologies. The first wave – known as ‘systems thinking’ – took these principles into a realist ontology coupled with positivist epistemology. Systems thinking is associated with the method of interpreting modelling systems – of drawing diagrams of flows, connections and feedback loops – so specific interventions can be made (Meadows ). This seems to be closest to the type of systems thinking being used in the Cabinet Office in 2020 (Systems Unit 2020) which seems broadly top-down and technocratic in orientation rather than about using systems thinking to generate more democratic processes of change.

There is a later strand – characterised as a ‘second wave’ – often known as ‘soft systems thinking’ or ‘systemic thinking’ (Burns 2007: 22) which works with a social constructivist ontology and a subjective epistemologically. It is associated less with modelling and more on collaborative meaning making, making visible world views or paradigms and has been highly influential in action learning (Checkland and Poulter 2006), action research and management and organization change contexts.

A ‘third wave’ (Burns 2007: 7) (sometimes referred to as Critical Systems Thinking) has been seen as enhancing soft systems by bringing ‘issues of power much more firmly into the frame and showing how the way in which we construct boundaries around issues fundamentally affects what happens’ (Burns 2007: 7). This latter wave is focused, in particular, on creating capacities for understanding and acting in conditions of radical unknowablity and uncertainty (Flood 2010). Debates in this wave of discussion concerned the relationship between holism – the idea of the whole – and plurality, leading to a more recent framing which sees the idea of the ‘whole’ as an impossible-to-realise-but-useful prompt and a commitment to plurality as essential to opening up the multiplicity of any issue. As Danny Burns puts it ‘the concept of “whole systems” is useful only as long as we interpret it as an attempt to see more of the whole rather than attempt to see the whole […] Our starting point is to construct a “working picture” of the multiple systems that we inhabit, both from within and outside them, and then to identify opportunities to act within them. We can be in the interaction and influence it. We can be in the system and change it’ (2007: 22, 33)

In the kinds of ways described by Burns, the third wave has influenced the concept ‘whole system change’ which has become widely used in health and social care contexts, arising from an action research process funded by the King’s Fund. Motivated by the anti-reductionist recognition that complex social problems ‘are influenced by the actions of many individuals, groups and organizations’ and that the tendency to ‘break them into actionable parts’ has failed (Pratt, Gordon; Plamping and Wheatley, 2013: Kindle Location 104). Whole System is, therefore:

[…] an approach to organisational development that views groups of people who come together around a shared purpose as living systems. It recognises that the way in which living systems adapt and evolve is determined by the way interconnected parts relate to each other, as well as by the way individual parts behave. (Pratt, Gordon, Plamping and Wheatley, 2013: Kindle Location 103)

Whole systems has tended to be a process of planning and large scale meetings and there are now a myriad of techniques for facilitating cross-system talk and collaborative working (such as World Café, Open Space Technology).  However, they do all depend on the idea of ‘the room’ and of getting everyone together and therefore there is a scale issue of the type that has concerned Deliberative Systems debates.

This ‘everyone in the room’ approach is in contrast to approaches developed under the umbrella of Systemic Action Research, which is framed not simply as ‘research’ but as a ‘strategy for whole system change’ (Burns 2007, emphasis mine). Here techniques can include pulling everyone together into whole system events but can also include recognising the power of enabling self-organisation of specific groups, parallel lines of inquiry (therefore not forcing consensus seeking) and for the inquiry to emerge and unfold over time. Therefore, offering practical means of engaging the concern with distributed democracy explored in Deliberative Systems.

One significant difference between the debates on Deliberative Systems and Systemic Thinking and Whole System Change debates is that in the latter the role of the facilitator is very much foregrounded and actively discussed. In whole system work and systemic action research the facilitator plays a crucial role in convening and holding a space, prompting with questions, drawing out underlying issues, noticing connections between people and ideas, documenting and reflecting back and cultivating distributed leadership.

We draw out here the arising questions for Systemic Thinking and Whole System Change in relationship to those identified from Deliberative Systems debates:

Beyond Talk: Everyday talk, stories, feelings and deliberative talk

  • How can you both expand the way people can contribute (to not just be hyper articulate reasoned argument) to include stories, emotion, everyday talk in Mansbridge terms and cultivate the ideals of deliberation (inform, weighing up)?
  • How can ideas of the ‘whole’ and of ‘plurality’ be used to value the richness of experience, meaning and action (and to as see all of this as part of democratic processes)?

Knowledge and Democracy: Better outcomes and well as a better process

  • How can deliberative systems lead to better understandings of complex issues as well as being more democratic (in that more people affected are involved and issues are deliberated)?
  • How might using systemic thinking and techniques which ‘play back’ (whether through systemic mapping, visual representations or compelling narrative) enable richer conversation and ultimately deeper understandings of the complexity of issues and generate new networks and capacities for action?

Being heard: trust, responsive, decisiveness

  • How can you increase trust in the processes of local democracy (and beyond)?
  • How can you ensure people can be heard by decision makers and their contributions and deliberations actually affect decision making?
  • How can systemic thinking and whole system approaches both actively inform current formal decision-making processes and also enable further democratic innovations?

Expanding ideas of change

  • How might this way of working both influence formal decision making (e.g. through a council or parliament) and expand the definitions of change (to include community-led change)?
  • How might change be conceived as a long-term continuous process and in ways that work at all scales?
  • How might introducing systemic thinking to public engagement enable a more plural understanding of how change happens?
  • How can public engagement processes be structured to enable citizen action of all kinds (and link into local area coordination, community and youth work/activism)?

A Democratic System?: Consensus, contest and protest

  • How to work towards emerging consensus and to work non-cooptively with protesters and activists?
  • How to work systemically from where we are now and expand ideas of democracy (Pateman)?
  • How can whole system work be done both in a large scale and distributed way and through whole system events?
  • What does systemic action research and whole system work offer theories and practices of participatory democracy?

Roles: What roles can help make the system work?

  • What kinds of roles can facilitation (‘Institutional referees’ (Parkinson 2012)) usefully and legitimately play? How might this be institutionalised?
  • How might this role also enable ‘meta’ reflection of the system and how it can be developed?
  • What variety of approaches to facilitation work at a large scale and systemic level? What are the approaches and practices of ‘systemic facilitation’?

In this blog we’ve linked questions that arise from systemic thinking and whole systems work to the questions that arise from deliberative systems. In the next we want to just draw out two key methods that might be useful for investigating a systemic approach to deliberative systems: the ‘soft systems method’ which is explicitly deliberative developed by Peter Checkland and John Poulter (2006) and Danny Burns’ emergent and action-led inquiry approach known as ‘Systemic Action Research’ (2007).