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Systems Thinking Before Systems Change

Let’s take a step back…a mighty big step back. As community builders we are catalysts for change. We work to fortify the strengths of a community and encourage positive shifts to address the many complexities that we live with.

Systems’ thinking is a way of understanding our world that emphasizes the relationships between the parts of our system, rather than just the parts themselves. You know the saying; the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The synergy of that whole system exists because of the interaction of the parts.

Woah… let’s get practical before we get too deep and metaphysical.

Many collaborative community change efforts designed to address complex issues come short of achieving what they promise. Systems thinkers such as Buckminster Fuller, Peter Senge and Donella Meadows suggest that if we take the time to examine the characteristics of a system, then complex issues can be approached in a more effective way. They suggest (very simplified);

  1. Clarify the system – define the boundaries.
  2. Research and learn about the characteristics of the system.  Who is a part of the system? How do their relationships reflect the system?
  3. Identify the levers that will alter the system.  These are the key interactions (likely relationships) that, if changed, have a significant ripple effect.

Interested in submerging in systems thinking?  Here is a beginning book list.

Peter Senge – The Fifth Discipline – The classic book of systems thinking for leaders building learning organizations. Senge is also one of the authors in one of our favourite articles; The Dawn of Systems Leadership. Find this online at http://ssir.org/articles/entry/the_dawn_of_system_leadership

Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Donella Meadows – Described as the essential primer that brings systems thinking out of the realm of computers and equations and into the tangible world, showing readers how to develop the systems-thinking skills. Donella Meadows was known as much for nurturing positive outcomes as she was for delving into the science behind global dilemmas. Currently, the Donella Meadows Institute carries on the work of their founder to better understand and work with systems.  Enjoy this 10 min. video about leverage points.

The Systems Thinking Playbook by Linda Booth Sweeney and Dennis Meadows – This book includes group exercises, that, in the hands of a good facilitator, will enable people to grasp the concepts. It includes a DVD of people doing many of the exercises.

When a Butterfly Sneezes: A Guide for Helping Kids Explore Interconnections in Our World by Linda Booth Sweeney. Each chapter of this book focuses on a favorite children’s picture book–and reveals the systems principle inherent in the story. Loaded with questions to spark conversation for both younger and older readers.

Happy learning!

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