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Thinking Systemically

By Jen Morgan, 3rd December 2015

“The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think.” Gregory Bateson

So what is the difference between how nature works and how people think?

As empowered change agents, how can we help to align human systems so that they are in harmony with our natural systems?

This is something that I have been exploring for the last 12 years working at the nexus of sustainability and finance as a change practitioner with WWF-UK and The Finance Innovation Lab.

How Nature Works – A Complex System

Nature is a complex system. Orit Gal of Regents University’s Complexity Studio explains that the characteristics of a complex system, such as in a rainforest or a pond, include:

• Many simple actors whose interconnected relationships make the whole
• A collection of local actions – there is no ‘one actor’ in control
• Many interactions between actors – some interactions have surprising effects
• Actors learn and evolve over time and this leads to changing dynamics and patterns

However, through our prevalent thinking, we have designed our human systems with underlying principles of ‘self’ as independent, hierarchal control, predictable cause and effect and siloed expertise. Our predominant thinking has solidified through the influence of religious, scientific and industrial eras. As a result, we have become disconnected from ourselves, from each other and from the universal operating principles of nature that enable the conditions for life to thrive.

The most important thing we need to do now is to help humanity to change the way it thinks. We are not facing an ecological crisis – rather we are facing a crisis of epistemology. And this is the root cause of all our ecological challenges. This requires us to work at a level of worldviews, purpose, values, behaviours and relationships. Making shifts from ‘I’ to ‘WE’, from ‘individualism to interconnectivity’, from ‘fear to love’, from ‘scarcity to abundance’.
Thinking Systemically

Donella Meadows, a pioneering American environmental scientist, teacher, and writer, co-authored ‘The Limits to Growth‘, a seminal piece of work that began a debate about the limits of the Earth’s capacity to support human economic expansion. As a system thinker, she has also helped people to understand systems and how to intervene in systems for meaningful change.

The essence of her thinking is summarised in ‘Leverage Points, Places to Intervene in a System’. In this article, she talks about different leverage points with varying levels of influence. In descending order of effectiveness, she suggests change efforts should focus on shifting:

1. The Worldviews and Values Underpinning the System
2. The Purpose of the System
3. Who Shapes the Rules of the Game
4. The Rules of the Game
5. Information Flows
6. Positive and Negative Feedback Loops e.g. incentives
7. Physical Material Flows

She highlights that the top three most long-term, impactful places to intervene are through addressing the system’s worldviews and values, the system’s purpose and the system’s power dynamics.

But where do we actually focus our change efforts? Most of the of environmental change efforts of UK philanthropists and their grantees have historically addressed the lower order leverage points for change – such as increasing transparency, internalising externalities, and reducing environmental footprints. These are important. We need it all.

However, our efforts for change are seriously not stacking up to the scale of change that is required. We need to think much more critically and progressively about our strategies for change. And this means placing a much greater emphasis on the higher order leverage points that Donella presents.

Acting Systemically

So how can we stimulate change at the root level of systems?

Over the past decade, I have learnt that meaningful long-term change needs convening infrastructure, collaborative communities and personal leadership.

Convening Infrastructure:
Social change takes time. To help to create the enabling conditions for change over time, convening infrastructure is essential to host and grow communities and programmes of work. There is an increased awareness amongst US philanthropists that ‘backbone’ organisations are important convening infrastructure for ‘collective impact’. Backbone organisations clarify context, set intention, build strategy, cultivate resources, and create processes and partnerships that catalyse change at scale. Backbone organisations need the help of philanthropists now more than ever.

Collaborative Communities:
Aligned communities are exponentially more powerful. As we have seen from history, social change is accelerated when groups of people are galvanised by common purpose and find ways to act and move together. To enable an environmental movement in the UK, we need to convene and cultivate a community of change makers, who have a joint understanding of the root issues, are motivated by an inspiring vision, have shared theories and approaches to change, are aligned through a common purpose and have joined up strategies that allow the community to come together to experiment, practice, learn, adapt and leverage their work, relationships and resources.

Personal Leadership:
We are a fractal of the system. As we have learned from complexity science, we are all part of an interconnected system and our local actions influence the whole. So every action we take matters. And our actions will be even more influential if they are all in tune with our personal purpose (and this includes organisational purpose). What is our purpose? What are our values? What are our behaviours? Where are there gaps between our purpose and behaviours? How do we address this dissonance?

What philanthropists can do?

Philanthropists have a very important leadership role to play in pioneering the progressive change that is needed for people and planet. And the timing couldn’t be better. However, we need to take a step back, reflect critically on our efforts, and build better strategies and collaborative cultures.

Here are few thoughts that I believe will make significant shifts for our work.

1. Develop your capacity to understand ‘systems’ and ‘systems change’– take courses, learn from other practitioners, spend time in nature.
2. Invest more in convening infrastructure for change and backbone organisations and support people and projects that are working to address root-level systems change – shifting worldviews, purpose and power.
3. Recognise that meaningful change takes time and that tackling root causes may not produce direct and tangible environmental impact for some time – but when it does it will be significant and lasting.
4. Convene and cultivate collaborative communities for shared strategies, learning and leveraged impact. Do this with within and across the ecosystems of philanthropy and NGO/environmental organisations – and over a longer period of time.
5. Align your purpose and practice with everything you do – this includes things such as aligning programme and grant activity with endowment and reserve strategies.

Jen Morgan enables pioneering leaders and organisations to design and develop systems change strategies – so that human systems can align with the planet’s natural systems. As an intrapreneur within WWF-UK, she co-founded The Finance Innovation Lab – a newly independent systems change organization enabling a fair, democratic and responsible finance system. In addition to supporting systems entrepreneurs, she is an external advisor for the RSA’s Economy, Enterprise and Manufacturing programme and a Fellow at Cambridge University’s Judge Business School Centre for Social Innovation.


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