By Buffy St-Amand & Kristina Roberts
At JS Daw & Associates, we often advocate for our clients to take a ‘Systems Thinking’ approach to their work. This concept can be confusing and difficult to navigate. Systems Thinking has been defined in many different contexts. There is so much diverse information available; it is no wonder that Systems Thinking is a difficult concept to wrap your head around. With this blog, we will outline how our team uses Systems Thinking in our work and how you can integrate it into your processes.The majority of individuals and organizations see themselves in a very narrow context; considering little beyond their own cultures, time frames, and spheres of interest. We often do not take into account that we are all connected to circumstances much bigger than just our own. Systems Thinking presents a radical shift in our collective thinking. Instead of focusing on the individual parts of a system, the focus of this approach is on the relationships and interconnectivity amongst different components. Ultimately, Systems Thinking is a method of understanding the world, and an attempt to take all of its complexity into consideration.Systems exist everywhere and they are constantly interacting with each other. There are living systems such as ecological and social systems, as well as non-living systems. Since no problem exists in isolation, we are often confronted with unintended consequences when trying to find solutions.We believe that it is important to create the space necessary for innovation and social change. In order to create this space, silos must be broken down and interconnectivity must be fostered. The map below illustrates the layers of systems and boundaries that we feel are important to blur, and how we see our work fitting into the larger systems at play:Self (Individual Thought Systems)Every individual is made up of qualities, attributes, and experiences that make them unique. Each person’s background, culture, and priorities have a major influence on the way they think and perceive the world. Considering our own perceptions, biases, and behaviours is a critical first step in Systems Thinking, because after all, social systems are simply manifestations of our collective beliefs. In order to transform these systems, we must transform how we think.The team at JS Daw & Associates is composed of members who offer many unique perspectives; even though we are small, we are mighty. We feel it is important to foster diversity in order to allow the broadest range of possibilities to emerge. For this reason, we have been intentional about creating a team that comes from different educational backgrounds, cultures, and generations, and who provide complimenting strengths and perspectives.Systems of KnowledgeThe division of labour was a concept that fuelled the industrial revolution and allowed the efficiency of production to increase exponentially. This model is still at play in our academic and professional lives over 200 years later, even though many of its underlying assumptions are now out-dated. A rise in specialists in all areas has resulted in extensive information but, in many cases, this data exists without context and meaning. The missing ingredient is the generalist; someone who can link these ideas together into a broader fabric of understanding.According to research out of the University of Pennsylvania, it’s better to seek advice and predictions from those who “know many things, draw from an eclectic array or traditions and accept ambiguity and contradictions” than so-called experts (Casserly, 2012). For this reason, when we conduct research we draw on learning and activity across cultures, sectors, disciplines and periods of history. We pull from multiple sources to help identify patterns that then help us design concepts and strategies to future proof organizations and communities.Systems Approach (JS Daw & Associates)The approach we use with our clients has been developed through a Systems lens as well. Instead of approaching problems or projects in isolation, we examine the overarching strategy and the complete system in order to achieve the best result. At JS Daw & Associates, we believe that there is no single solution to creating shared value and delivering a strong community impact. We have developed an impact framework which integrates social purpose, performance management, aligned partnerships, and people engagement.Organizational SystemsWithin an organization, there are many systems contributing to the whole. Community Investment teams regularly approach our consultancy to help shape a strategy or an initiative. What we often find is organizational departments working in silos. There is little leveraging of each other’s knowledge or expertise for the benefit of the organization as a whole. As part of our process, we collect information from key individuals and departments across the organization, from CSR, to brand and communications, and HR. We then use the information to create integrated strategies that provide the largest benefit to the CI team, departments across the company, and the community.Another aspect of our work is facilitating the development of cross-functional teams. A cross-functional team is a team composed of members from diverse functional areas working together for a common goal. This integration allows for improved communication and support of activities. Ultimately this approach leads to enhanced outcomes, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Cultural & Economic Systems When we look at community from a systems perspective, it becomes clear that it must be a shared responsibility among all three sectors (business, nonprofit, and government). As society’s problems and challenges become more complex, collaboration across every imaginable boundary is the only way forward. A large portion of our work, including Partnership Brokers Training, focuses on encouraging and catalyzing cross-sector collaboration and partnerships that have a positive impact on the community and the organization.Social & Environmental SystemsWithin the past decade, individuals and organizations have started to broaden their mindset, and become aware that their actions have consequences on the larger social and environmental systems they are a part of. As this new awareness gains momentum, some organizations are taking more responsibility for their actions, and attempting to understand the long-term impact they create below the surface.At JS Daw & Associates, we help our clients understand how they can exist with a true purpose by giving them a sense of the bigger picture. We help them to conceptualize what it means to shift their work to strengthen and deepen their positive impact in society and on this planet.Natural SystemsAlthough we’d like to have all the answers about how individual and collective actions impact these larger systems, we must recognize that there is still so much we don’t know. Many of the complex challenges we face lie in the gray area between the known and the unknown.The universe will always be too complex and unpredictable for our human minds to fully comprehend. We can all be humbled by the larger intelligence that is at work in nature. For example, in nature there is no such thing as waste because everything is interdependent and used in some way. Natural systems demonstrate perfect harmony, balance, and ongoing evolution. By expanding our awareness, we can learn to mimic some of the intelligence inherent in natural systems to create more organic, harmonious and adaptive human systems in the future.Thinking systemically requires a sophisticated set of skills that has not been part of most people’s training or experience. Systems Thinkers must be comfortable with discomfort and uncertainty, and must continuously push their thinking and expand their knowledge. Perhaps the most important skill is the capacity to engage in deeper thinking and learning. Systems Thinkers must take personal responsibility for understanding complexity and learning about things they wouldn't normally consider.How will you integrate Systems Thinking into your work?