#1: Systems and the self

How I became a systems thinker.

I’m Luke Craven; this is another of my weekly explorations of how systems thinking and complexity can be used to drive real, transformative change in the public sector and beyond. The first issue explains what the newsletter is about; you can see all the issues here.

Hello there, reader,

Wow, it has been an incredible week since I announced the creation of Pig on the Tracks. The response has been overwhelming. The number of people who have already subscribed has blown away any expectations I had.

This first issue will focus on me—though not for entirely selfish reasons. Systems thinking is fundamentally personal work; inflected by individual history and experience. It is an ongoing practice of learning, unlearning, reflection and recalibration; “inner work” that requires deliberate nurturing and attention. It is hard to properly understand my view of systems thinking without having some of the story of how I came to value it and the journey I have been on since.

For those of you that know me well, this may feel like covering old ground, but I seldom get the chance to tell myself or others longer versions of the story. The story I most commonly tell is the story of how I came to work in systems, not the one of how I came to think in systemic ways. The latter is much harder to tell, partially because it is hard to articulate precisely what it means to be non-systemic. Derek Cabrera, a huge influence on my practice, likes to talk about our non-systemic manner of thinking about the world as LAMO: Linear, Anthropocentric, Mechanistic, and Ordered, noting:

  • The real world is nonlinear, yet we tend to think in linear ways.

  • The real world is agnostic about human endeavours, yet we tend to look at things through a human-centred (anthropocentric) lens.

  • The real world is adaptive and organic, yet we tend to think mechanistically (e.g. the metaphors we use reference machines; universe is like clockwork; mind is a like a computer).

  • The real word is networked and complex, yet we think of things in ordered categories and hierarchies.

In July 2014, I was four months into a PhD I had signed up for on a whim. David Schlosberg had convinced me to work with him on an Australian Research Council-funded project that eventually became a book. He suggested I do a PhD on “anything I wanted” at the same time. In those early days I was lost and overwhelmed. I was fresh out of an Honours degree that had attempted to challenge conventional thinking on the value of temporary migration for Pacific Island communities. When in research you are told to “keep your focus narrow,” instead I spent months in Vanuatu embedded with local communities listening and learning about how out-migration impacted labour supply, food security, migrant attitudes, local development and institutional viability. I used terms like “vicious cycle” and “feedback loop” without too much thought and—looking back—the final version of that work contained my first attempt at a systems map.

I knew I was interested in migration, food security, and in listening to first-hand perspectives of the challenges facing migrant communities. I knew David had funding for fieldwork in Sydney, London, and San Francisco. What followed, naturally, was a PhD proposal that sought to understand the systemic experience of food insecurity in three Afghan migrant communities. Early in my fieldwork, I hit a substantial roadblock. Asking people to identify the barriers they faced to accessing food wasn’t a good way to reveal the systems that impacted their food access. They’d focus on one thing or another, but seldom on the bigger picture. Having them draw a systems map of their experience, though, seemed to work more effectively. I quickly had 70 maps, of which I could say there were a lot of similarities and also a lot of differences, which is not a particularly noteworthy finding.

At the time, it was hard to interpret what was happening. What were the different barriers and which ones were the most important? How could I build “aggregate maps” that told the community-level story while also respecting the uniqueness of individual perspective and experience? My (and nearly everyone else’s) existing sense-making systems were essentially useless. Following weeks down rabbit holes and a subtle nudge from Francesco Bailo on the power of network analysis, I landed what has since become System Effects [academic paper]. It’s striking to reflect that one chance conversation over a beer (thanks, Francesco!) started a chain of events that has allowed me to apply System Effects to complex challenges across economic development and planning, employment, agriculture and food policy, education, taxation, and social welfare with collaborators in dozens of countries. I’m grateful that the breadth and diversity of that experience has exposed me to systems of different shapes and sizes; helped me build an intuition for their similarities and differences; and enabled me to meet and learn from some incredible fellow travellers.

As a young child I was fascinated by closed systems—systems I could control. I spent hours building Lego, train sets, marble tracks, you name it. I knew exactly where each piece belonged and, when mechanistic elements were involved, all their parameters and constraints. I used to revel in explaining how they worked and in being certain. As I grew older, I started to create more complex systems. During a phase where I was convinced I wanted to be an architect, I became obsessed with designing floor plans of different homes and of telling stories of the families who would live in them, the decisions they would make, their triumphs and disappointments. In the fallout from the 2001 release of the first Lord of the Rings film, I devoted myself to building my own fantasy worlds, with maps and descriptions of cultures and economies crossing into multiple volumes. As a perfectionist who still struggles with letting go of absolute control, I remember becoming frustrated that they were stories I could not tell completely. There were always unfinished elements, uncertainties, and surprises. The stories could be told in different ways. The worlds contained different trajectories.

If you accept complexity and a world of open systems, linear causality is the first thing to go out the window. Accepting nonlinearity and uncertainty is still one of my greatest struggles as a systems thinker. Our culture and our institutions, where I am an active participant, are all premised on the assumptions of linear causation, direct attribution, and individual responsibility. As a society we struggle, for example, to understand our collective entanglement with the nonhuman world and our collective responsibility for its ills. We still, despite the many best efforts of environmental activists, waste our time talking about individual responsibility, keep cups and plastic straws. I owe so much of my capacity to accept nonlinearity and its impact on causation to time spent with David and the many environmental activists who were our friends and collaborators as we wrote Sustainable Materialism. Their thinking and work helped me see environmental systems from beyond a singular, human perspective. More than anything, they helped me accept that once we recognise that human beings and their needs are tied to a whole range of ecological entanglements, we open up a range of ethical questions about our collective responsibility for larger systems that are beyond our control.

For the past two years, I’ve been working in the Design Branch of the Australian Taxation Office. I am not a designer, by any measure, but I am learning. I was recruited to develop and implement a step-change in the way the ATO approached its design work: the outcome of which we have called “systems-led design.” Before joining the ATO I had become increasingly frustrated in the work I was doing as an academic supporting public sector organisations to take systems thinking seriously. I used to say there was a glass ceiling in government for systems approaches. You could easily get one leader excited and on board, but it was often difficult for them to convince their boss of the rationale for change. Attempts at change were often driven from the outside by consultants (like me, at the time) and struggled to move beyond shallow or superficial change. Being on the inside is a fundamentally different experience. I have the capacity to work both from the top down, setting the conditions for people to be able to think and act in systemic ways and from the bottom up, giving them the tools to do so. It has helped me see that the rationale for and capability to think in systemic ways is anything but obvious; that transforming organisations to be complexity-friendly is quiet and humble work. And the work continues.

These are only parts of my experience and over time I will undoubtedly share others. My journey has left me with many questions. Some will be the focus of future issues, including:

  • What does it really mean to be a systems thinker? Do systems thinkers always think in systemic ways? Should they?

  • How can we shift from using systems thinking to tell better stories about the world to using it to achieve real, transformational change? Do we need to be telling better systems stories? What would that mean?

  • How do we transform systems thinking itself to be more inclusive of different disciplines, practices and patterns of thought? Systems thinking, particularly in this community, is spoken about with impunity: what are its blind spots and biases? How might they be overcome?

Are there other questions you would like me to focus on? Other thoughts, comments, concerns, rants, etc. you have after reading this post?

Let me know!

By the way: This newsletter is hard to categorise and probably not for everyone—but if you know unconventional thinkers who might enjoy it, please share it with them.

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Find me elsewhere on the web at www.lukecraven.com, on Twitter @LukeCraven, on LinkedIn here, or by email at <luke.k.craven@gmail.com>. Image credit: Designed by rawpixel.com / Freepik.