Systems Thinking for Community Groups. Or, How Can You Change a System if You Have No Power?

March 17, 2016

Systems thinking for community groupsSystems thinking can seem complex and inaccessible but even the smallest group of people working towards change can learn from it. Kate Swade sets out five ways to use it.

Google ‘systems change’ and you get almost 1.5bn results. Do the same with ‘systems thinking’ and you get almost 23 million. There is a wealth of thinking, debate, theory and practice out there – once you become aware of the language, it can seem that everyone’s doing it, or talking about it at least.

I’ve worked in the development trust and community asset movements for almost 10 years, and had come to think of myself as very much a practitioner. Not distrustful of theories, exactly, but unsure of their relevance to my work. I don’t tend to be a grand narratives type of person, and have always learnt far more from working with people than from reading theories.

I came across the ideas of systems thinking accidentally – a mention of ‘human ecology’ that set me off on one of those lovely trails of following internet links, and suddenly – horrors! – found myself not only reading theories, but getting excited about them, making notes, wanting more. I even found myself saying, ‘I’ve found my theoretical framework!’ to a slightly nonplussed friend.

So what actually is systems change?

The current issue of New Start is investigating systems change. In order to change a system, you need to be able to think about it: systems thinking is a precursor to systems change.

The starting point is the recognition that we all consist of and are part of multiple interconnecting systems – biological, social, organisational. Systems thinking takes this recognition and uses it as the basis for trying to understand and change the world. Systems thinking sees the relationships within and between systems as crucially important, and recognises that there is huge complexity in these relationships. Doing something to one part of the system may have unexpected effects in another part.

However, much ‘systems’ literature can be complex and inaccessible, and there are many different approaches to and ways of understanding systems thinking. At its most powerful, it’s a different way of looking at the world, a coherent and complex worldview.

Much systems thinking seems to assume (reasonably!) that if you are trying to change a system you have some power or authority within that system. Community organisations, though, rarely have formal power over the thing they are trying to change, especially groups of people who have come together to try and take control of a piece of land or other asset. In my work at Shared Assets we work to develop new models of the management and governance of land and natural resources, and we work with lots of small and ambitious community organisations who manage or want to manage land.

My question, therefore, was: can systems thinking be useful for community groups? And if it can, which elements could be most useful? Eighteen months, a lot of books, many wonderful conversations, and a fabulous course later, I’ve just finished a piece of work for my Clore Social Leadership Fellowship that tries to answer this question. On the next page are some of the ways I think systems thinking can help community organisations:

Five ways in which systems thinking could be useful for community groups:

It seems to me that there are five key areas where insights from systems thinking could be useful for community groups (or indeed any small group of people trying to change a system). There are links to more thoughts on all of these things in the headings.

  1. Relationships – us and other people

A key tenet of systems thinking is that you have an impact on a system just by being in it. Finding ways of understanding where you and the other members of your group are coming from will help in agreeing strategies and lay the ground for any difficult conversations – which are likely to be necessary at some point! The other practical side of this is the key systems idea that there is no one objective truth – everyone sees things slightly differently and by creating the space for open conversations we are actually more likely to get closer to an accurate view of any situation.

  1. Communication

Thinking about how we – both individually and as a group – communicate is really important. It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it. There are different ways of talking and listening – different ‘qualities of attention’ that can have very different results.

  1. Mapping and context

Even if you’ve been working on something for a long time, it’s always worth making the time to step back and take a fresh look at your context. Working together to create a map of your current situation can be a great way of getting a new perspective on what to do next, and on what you might be missing.

  1. Modelling – where do you want to be?

Creating a similar map, but of the future situation that you’d like to see, can be a powerful way of getting to an agreement about the way forward, and to think creatively about the best ways to spend your time and energy.

  1. Experimenting

One of the big problems with seeing the world in a systemic way is that it can all seem overwhelming: if everything is connected, part of a bigger system, how can we ever really change anything? Taking an experimental approach involves really thinking about your context, trying small actions, reflecting on their impact, recognising that it is really impossible to predict exactly what is likely to happen in a given situation. It can be a really useful way of moving forward in situations which may otherwise feel overwhelming.

None of these things are radical in themselves, necessarily, but taken together they being to form a coherent framework for action that is rooted in systems theories. There’s more information on all of this, including some good reading to get started, here:

In essence, systems thinking is a worldview, and an attitude – of inquiry and reflection. Thinking and working in ways that recognise the interconnectedness of the world is the first step – it seems to me – to being able to make the systemic changes that we need to see.

Originally published by New Start Magazine on January 16, 2015

Kate SwadeKate Swade is Development Manager at Shared Assets, a not for profit company that promotes community management of environmental assets such as waterways, woodlands and green spaces. She is a passionate advocate of community led solutions to urban and rural development challenges.

Previously, she ran the consultancy service at Coin Street Community Builders, the social enterprise that has transformed London’s South Bank into a vibrant mixed use neighbourhood. She helped ambitious community groups and neighbourhood organisations across the country develop regeneration and building projects.