Systems Thinking: The Lesson of Time

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“Changing times” demands we consider both words change and time if we want to understand systems that hold both for us.

It’s fair to say you’ve probably we’ve never seen more transformation of everyday life on a global level than you have with what’s come with the COVID-19 pandemic. On a sheer scale, scope, and complexity, this is a different beast for our work, our homes, the way we relate to each other, and the way every country in the world is or has wrestled with it. This provides us with an opportunity to see systems that we missed before and learn, contemplate, and plan for how we affect systems change as we move ahead.

The phrase “Changing times” comprises both change and time — two variables that are critical to system dynamics, complexity, networks — and yet are remarkably misunderstood, poorly articulated, or completely ignored in practice.

Understanding both have enormous implications for strategy and evaluation in helping us act wisely in dynamic situations.

Time: Echoes of the Past

Our understanding of, use, and experience of time shape nearly everything we do and are symbiont with our emotions. It’s for this reason that the myriad emotion-laden issues that the pandemic presents make time a critical variable to consider as we come to understand the systems around us.

COVID-19 presents a particular challenge tied to time. The virus has an estimated 14-day incubation period (range) and most who contract it experience symptoms in a range of 5–11 days). When we see outbreaks and case ‘spikes’ within a geographic area, it can reflect behaviour from up to 14 days earlier. That means that the physical distancing efforts of today won’t produce visible epidemiological benefits for up to two weeks.

What is seen on any given day is the echo of past actions and choices.

Public health professionals are pleading for action now knowing that whatever we do today won’t have much bearing on healthcare utilization and infection rates today or tomorrow, but soon. And tomorrow will come. Yet, it’s hard to reassure people that their actions matter when they don’t see an obvious link between what they do (or don’t do as the case may be with social isolation) right now and what they see on the news.

What adds to this is the effect that comes from system-level effects. Within two weeks our system may have already transformed because of the scale and speed of change we are seeing in the number of cases. This affects our capacity to deal with the problem as whatever we have on hand will be different in two weeks. (This might be more in some areas like number of hospital beds, but more in the availability of things like hand-sanitizer thanks to many creative efforts to make it).

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One of the flaws in much evaluation and strategy is that we often confuse moving things with static things in our approach to understanding them. At a system level, this confusion is problematic when we consider the manner in which system variables influence each other at different levels and rates of speed, intensity, and amount. Heraclitus’ words on the bridge above ring true: We are not acting on the system we have data on.

It is here that we need a developmental and systems mindset. Creating a strategy involves generating intentions and organizing actions based on two things: 1) assumptions about how the world works and 2) how we seek to influence that world in the future. A strategy is only effective at creating influence into that future world if we have the correct assumptions about the systems we’re working in.

This is where evaluation comes in. Evaluation is that activity that looks at what we do and assesses the effects that come from it. Taken further, it is also a means of serving as a feedback mechanism in a complex system by providing real-time data on what is happening and what observable, possible, and (when possible) likely consequences of our action.

New Models of Evaluation + Strategy

To act within systems, we need frameworks of understanding the system, sensemaking what we see, and means of acting upon that information. This is the challenge for strategy (and evaluation).

Cynefin Framework. This sensemaking framework can also serve as a form of ‘diagnostic’ to help us assess what kind of environment we are in and what kind of actions are likely to produce desirable outcomes. Chris Corrigan has written on how Cynefin applies to evaluation and complexity that is worth reading. It is only by appreciating what kind of systems we are dealing with are we equipped to begin understanding time and motion effects.

Developmental Evaluation. This approach to evaluation considers the way in which programs evolve and respond to complexity. It is as much a mindset as a means to organize ways to do an evaluation. DE is often considered as a means of accounting for complexity to engage in strategic learning about systems.

Design-driven Evaluation. What DE does not do is provide explicit guidance on what to do with what you learn. It is still apart of the actual intervention that is under examination. Sometimes that’s a useful thing, but when we seek to transform systems through intervention (e.g., strategy, programs, etc.) the coupling of what we do, how we do it, and the system we do it in often requires we embed evaluation into the fabric of our efforts — not as an adjunct, but as a core. It also means tying what we learn (evaluation & sensemaking) with what we create (design). Like DE, this is less about a set of methods and tools, but a mindset and approach.

Strategy. In all three of these concepts, the strategy is either implicit or explicitly tied to what we monitor and what data we have. By gathering data in a manner that recognizes the time factors (e.g., system lags, delays, bottlenecks, and transforming contexts) with the motion (e.g., rate of change, amplification and dampening of effects tied to other actions) we can better anticipate what might come and design an approach to acting that can better absorb disruption and work with (or around it) while keeping some integrity to our actions.

It’s in these cases where principles-focused approaches can be further combined with our strategy and evaluation.

These are changing times. Having a mindset and vision that can better help us see what’s changing through evaluation and data and transforming that into strategy is what will help us get through them rather than let them go through us.

Stuck with how to do this? Reach out — I might be able to help.

Cover photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

This is based on an earlier piece in Censemaking.

Designer, evaluator, educator, & psychologist supporting people in making positive change, by design. Principal @censeltd @censeacademy

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