Systems thinking has become a hot topic in organisational thinking. This animation was made for the consultancy firm Impower and it’s about using systems thinking in public services. The example we use in the animation is children’s services.

A key idea in the animation is that a service or an organisation exists as part of a network of systems. Some systems you control, some you can influence and some are beyond your sphere of influence.

The animation encourages people to venture out to the realm of influenceable systems.  So instead of just safely working within the system you can control (typically your organisation), you explore the networks you are embedded in. Who can you collaborate with to get as much impact as possible?

The catch? You can’t control these systems, only influence them…

Realistic network weaving

influencing the system cartoon

You can’t control everything, but you can influence something. Detail from an animation about systems friendly public services (client: Impower). 

Another key idea in the animation is figuring out what you are able to influence within the networks you are embedded in. This is not always easy.

When I started working on the animation I realised that I’ve actually worked like this in the past. Back in the day I worked for a nonprofit campaigning organisation where the first step of the planning process included stakeholder mapping and power analysis. The key questions were 1) who have power and 2) who can we REALISTICALLY influence. This meant that quite often we would steer away from the obvious power holders (governments, mega corporations etc) and look for people or organisations that can act as levers that set things in motion.

In this kind of work you have to know the actors well. You need to foster relationships. It requires thinking on multiple planes and acceptance that things don’t immediately go your way.

Yet, in most modern western influenced organisations people don’t think like this. There is a process that you follow to reach a specific goal. It works if you are on an assembly line, but in public services that deal with complex problems it’s crucial to be able to work beyond internal processes.

Farewell to sweet dreams of control

Perhaps the most radical aspect of systems thinking is letting go of the idea of CONTROL.

I guess it’s more natural for a campaigning or lobbying organisation to use systems thinking in their work because they accept uncertainty – it’s part of the game. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Most organisations, however, have been trapped in an idea that there is a PROCESS that you can control that will always deliver the results. You submit a proposal, proposal gets accepted, resources get allocated and change happens.

Oh if only everything was so simple!