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A Shock to the System

Author: Jenna White

COVID-19 has been a large shock to all of the systems in which we operate in both our personal and professional lives. A systems thinking mindset can help us face the complexity of this challenge and better prepare our organizations, the sector and ourselves for the upcoming changes that have yet to work their way through. Over the next few weeks we will be highlighting specific systems thinking habits, tools, and mindsets that can be particularly useful to development practitioners during this time of systems change.

LINC has taught dozens of workshops on systems thinking. No matter the audience, we typically begin with an exercise known as “triangles.” Even though we can’t gather in person, you can find a video of another instructor leading a similar exercise here. This simple exercise elegantly demonstrates a few key points that are core to a systems thinking mindset:

A Shock to the System - triangle
  • A single change within a system can have indirect effects that are much greater than the initial change itself.
  • How change unfolds within a system can be complex, iterative, and hard to predict.
  • It is particularly hard to find the cause and effect relationships that are separated in time (delayed) and space (physical distance).
  • Achieving what is best for the broader system may require that we NOT optimize our own (or our team’s own) individual outcomes.
  • The system after a change can look very different from the system prior to the change while still retaining its core characteristics.

This week, try taking a few moments to think about the system of systems that in which you operate. For example, what other organizations impact the behavior of your organization? How do changes within your organization impact other organizations?

We’ve already seen how closely linked the public health system and the economic system are. What are some changes that might still be working their way through our systems? What other impacts might we see further from public health in the near or longer-term future?

Gaining a better understanding of our position within our own system, and our system’s position in the broader context is the first step in the journey to becoming a systems thinker. We hope you’ll check back next week to take the next step with us.

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