Looking for maximum impact with less resources - Systems Practice is your key for untangling complexity!
Written by Anna B. Sabhaney
I have often reflected on why in some cases the work and effort that goes into tackling a problem is sometimes disproportionate to the value created and is not always reflected in the ultimate result.  

I believe that Systems Practice, instead of linear cause and effect thinking, can really help us achieve better stronger results with less. If you haven’t come across it yet – it is really worth considering! 

We cannot deal with complexity…

I believe that our current Francis Bacon inspired linear cause-effect methodology for describing and solving problems is just inadequate for helping us tackle the larger scale, complex, geographically extended problems we are faced with.

There must be a better way of visualising complex problems and ensuring our efforts produce the maximum possible results we aspire to and I believe that better way is Systems Practice.

How we currently focus on one part of the picture…

What do you see when you look at this map? Initially I see an overwhelming mass of inter-connected different things, I do not know where to look and my brain cannot decide which set of links or which process to “read first”. This, as science is telling us, is because as soon as there is more than one potential outcome or scenario or factor present, our brain is really unable to forecast different outcomes, let alone evaluate potential courses of action.

Currently, we are taught that to solve a problem we need to break it into manageable pieces and find a way of tackling each bit individually and that when we put our pieces back together that will give us the solution we need. When drafting project proposals, we subgroup our tasks and workplans into separate disciplines, package them up and give them to different teams to deal with. This is largely our inheritance from the 17th century Scientific Method.

Our approach to facing complexity is to focus in on one story thread at any given time and follow that, in meticulous detail, wherever it leads us. For example, in creating a community improvement scheme, we might decide that the key improvement we want to deliver is better access to water for bathing and drinking, and we might define that as more abundant water with a continuous supply. We are sometimes so blinded by our attachment to one “correct” solution that we become unable to consider the broader context of other factors and processes that might undermine our solution's effectiveness.

The cost of this approach

I am sure that in your past you have faced scenarios where despite all the efforts and good intentions and hard work and funding invested into a project (say, for example, a community water supply or flood risk mitigation scheme) your team did not achieve the outcomes you had hoped for. For example, scenarios where despite community engagement and initial liaison with the water tank providers and users of the local borewells, the new water supply scheme ends up not being used or adopted by the target population or the engagement in maintaining a new flood defence solution is poor.

I remember studying the Three Gorges Dam project and being surprised by how some of the initial goals set for the project (such as better navigation across the Yangtze, stimulated commercial trade, greater water and electricity supplies for eastern China) were threatened by unintended consequences that the project itself created (for example, increase in siltation leading to greater maintenance costs required to ensure navigability, reduction in silt flowing downstream reducing the deposition of silt in the estuary and encouraging saline intrusion of groundwater aquifers, and underestimation of the number of people relocated by the project, causing a local reduction in the need for water and electricity, meaning that what was produced needed to be transported to other parts of China at additional cost).
The devil is in the linkages between processes and issues. And in the details.
All these issues and unintended consequences which we sometimes call risks, are not coincidences. They are the results of systems of beliefs, of legal, social infrastructure and of natural processes that have always existed.

Our failures arise from not being able to recognise the interlinkages between various disciplines, categorisations or framework items that we have created. We assume that our building blocks exist in a vacuum and are separate from each other. This means we cannot factor in the interactions that arise from interlinkages.

It is of course easier to set only one indicator and focus on one perspective and delivering one solution, than it is to recognise the multitude of processes, risks and interlinkages between issues. However, recognising and understanding these links makes the difference between a successful, lean project where we exceed our expectations with minimum effort and instead a failure, where despite all our hard work, there is no visible change materialising.

A better way forward

Systems Practice teaches us how to rewire our brain to see those interlinkgages and build them into our plans.

I first came across Systems Practice in 2008 whilst reading Civil Engineering at the University of Bristol, and was thrilled by the practice of breaking down problems into process building blocks instead of things. I was convinced that the entire built environment and international development industry was using it, however, to my surprise, it was nowhere to be found.

Systems Practice helps you co-construct maps with your partners, to build a shared holistic vision of a particular issue that captures all the various perspectives and is greater and more informative than the “sum of its parts” (or individual views). It helps us identify cycles in the system and opportunities that we can exploit to use the existing linkages between processes to help us achieve our goals so that these linkages work with us instead of against us. It also ensures that we do not become too entrenched and biased towards our specific thesis and instead remain open to recognising the full holistic scale of a system and to considering alternative paths of action if our initial approach does not work.

Although Systems Practice is a discipline in its own right, applying its principles does not need complicated modelling software or modelling techniques. +Acumen working with Omidyar Group , for example, have put forward a very practical process for using Systems Practice to guide multi-stakeholder multi-perspective discussions.

There is nothing more resilient than a solution that makes use of existing relationships, patterns and inter-linkages to achieve exponential positive change with less effort.

If we truly want to drive change in communities’ livelihoods, in tackling climate change, in enforcing land ownership or advocating for overdue changes in peoples' beliefs, we really need to turn a page in the way we go about describing problems and developing solutions.

The benefits of using Systems Practice to help us do these things are just too useful to ignore.

Anna B. Sabhaney

I help non-profit Founders and CEOs get funders and stakeholders listening.
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