Systems Change – What Is It and Are You Ready?

SYSTEM

What is a system?  A system is a set of interrelated elements.  Elements that interact.  Another word for how elements interact is an agreement.  Human interactions form a field of agreements, an agreements field.  An agreements field engages the energy of people connected to a purpose, changes that energy into another form, a form that others want and are ready to receive.  From whom, how, to whom.  That is how systems metabolize energy: systems that are fields of agreements.

We distinguish four types of energy fields in an agreements field.

  1. EFA. Material energy fields (EFA) are the physical dimension we experience as tangible. Crystalized, mineral structures. We live in a world made physical through the structures of material energy fields, of which humans are also made.
  2. EFB. Accessing energy fields (EFB) are the reaching out within an energy field, as structures of access, to get the needed resources. As humans, we are also EFB, reaching out with accessing structures for resources.
  3. EFC. Relational energy fields (EFC) are the energy fields that relate one energy field to another. Mobile in space and time. Humans are also EFC, relational energy fields.
  4. EFD. Aligning energy fields (EFD) are the energy fields that align an entity’s purpose with what it experiences, what it remembers, and what it chooses. Humans are also EFD, aligning how they relate to other energy fields (EFC) with accessing (EFB) structures (EFA). EFABCD.  Human systems.  Agreements fields.

CHANGE

What is change? Change is a shift in behavior.  A shift in outcomes and in experiences.

Systems change is a shift in the outcomes and experiences of an agreements field, of its interactions in its four levels of interpenetrating energy fields, EFABCD.  A shift in its structures, its material energy fields (EFA), is a change in the amount of material resources it has.  A shift in its accessing energy fields (EFB) is a change in its capacity to reach out towards other resources.  A shift in relational energy fields (EFC) is a change in its ability to relate to other energy fields.  A shift in aligning energy fields (EFD) is a change in the ability to align the agreements field with its intended purpose, its relationship with other fields, and with its accessing structures.  A change in human systems requires a shift in all four energy fields, EFABCD.

READINESS

How ready is any given system for change?  How ready is the agreements field ready for a shift?  The agreements field’s readiness for a shift assesses its state of all four energy fields, EFABCD.

  • Added valuation. What is the current added value of the available resources (EFA)?
  • Network readiness. What is the current access to basic structures (EFB), to form a network of nodes?
  • Collaborative capacity. What is the current relational capacity, to collaborate with other energy fields?
  • Systems understanding. What is the current ability to align one’s own energy fields?

These four capacities SCAN form the Strategic SCAN, a strategic assessment of an agreements field’s (S)ystems understanding, (C)ollaborative capacity, (A)dded valuation, (N)wetwork readiness.

Where are you in your readiness for systems change?  The Strategic SCAN assesses the four energy fields (EFABCD) of your agreements field, to let you know where you are with what capacities you have, and what you need to do to shift to the capacities you need for the desired experiences and outcomes.

What People Mean By “We Are Systems Thinkers”

I have been meeting lots of people lately who talk about being “systems thinkers.”  As a person who has played in the field of system dynamics and systems thinking for two dozen years, I get excited when people self-describe as playing in the same space.  To me “systems thinking” refers to classical definitions of a system and of systems thinking, such as:

System.  “A system is a set of interrelated elements.” — Russell Ackoff, 1971

Systems Thinking.  “The ability to see the world as a complex system.” — John Sterman, 2000

I have also started to listen more carefully to what people mean about what they say and what evidence they use to show what they mean.  With this listening, it seems to me that people are actually saying very different things about themselves, often with the same terms.  I have heard three very different things that people mean when they say, “systems thinking.”

Focus on systemic structures.  By systems thinking, some people mean that they focus on systemic structures.  They primarily focus on their own node, their own system, within a larger system.  They use processes like causal diagrams, rich pictures, and systems archetypes to describe their part of the system, its causes, and what they can do about it.  You can find hundreds of examples here, where I too have published.  This focus on systemic structures that are very close to their own node in the larger system seems to correlate with what I have observed to be segregating design, where everyone in the larger system tends to focus on their own local dynamics, irrespective of what others in the system are thinking or doing.

Focus on systemic decision structures.  By systems thinking, other people mean that they focus on a set of interrelated decision structures.  They primarily focus on how the decisions influencing their own node are influenced by multiple stakeholders who are each making decisions about their own nodes.  They use quantitative modeling processes like system dynamics (see my dengue modeling) and qualitative strategic modeling processes like my own GRASP and Strategic Clarity  processes, often coupled with the “systemic structures” processes described above.  With these processes, they try to see the whole, how each stakeholder contributes to causes of the problem, and how to partner around what each stakeholder could do to shift the behavior of the whole system.  This focus on systemic decision structures around their own nodes and those of related stakeholders seems to correlate with what I see as flocking design, where people and groups within a larger system pay attention to each other, reacting to each other’s movements, with the focus still primarily on one’s own resilience.

Focus on systemic agreement structures.  By systems thinking, yet other people mean that they focus on both the underlying and surface-level structures of agreements that determine the systemic decision structures.  They primarily focus on how deeper structures of embedded agreements influence the system of decisions that each stakeholder consciously or unconsciously accepts in their interactions within a system.  They use processes of co-hosting collaboration to decide together what their deeper shared purpose is within the stakeholders of a larger system, seeing what the requisite unique contributions are from each stakeholder, and together developing creative possibilities that they then leverage and tangibilize together, using processes like the Harmonic Vibrancy Move Process.  This focus on systemic agreement structures seems to correlate with what I observe to be uniting design, where people come together to redefine the underlying agreements that shape their system, the experience they have, the outcomes they achieve, and the resilience of the impacts they achieve.

So, the next time someone tells you they are a systems thinker, I invite you to perk up your ears, listen a little closer, and ask questions.  Look for the evidence of what they actually mean.  Are they focusing on (1) systemic structures to improve segregating designs, (2) systemic decision structures to support flocking designs, or (3) systemic agreement structures to co-develop uniting designs?  Those few moments of extra inquiry and evidence gathering might tell you a lot about what they actually mean.