This year’s RSD12 Systemic Design Symposium showcased the diversity of the field, prompting me to ask myself, “What kind of Systems Thinking Designer Am I?”
I am bridging two fields that I believe would both benefit from closer interaction: User Centered Design and Systemic Constellations. Here is what my current approach to Systems Thinking Design looks like.
Consciousness of the System
As a Systems Thinking Designer I approach design challenges holistically, recognizing their interconnectedness within multiple webs of meaning and influence, whether it’s a product, service, business, or organization.
We look at the current system and how it is operating with not only our analytical mind (“systems thinking”) but with all of our senses (“systems sensing”). This requires a reflective, awareness based approach in order to uncover underlying dynamics at play.
Change the System through Design
We have been able to achieve so much through design — creating new forms of technology that fit seamlessly with behavior and transform culture. It’s time to redesign for more equity, justice, and improve the wellbeing of our human and non-human world.
In my work I am looking to identify leverage points in the system, as Donella Meadows suggested, where making one small adjustment can bring about a big change in the system.
However as a Designer I am careful not to over-promise on this. When there are shifts in wider systems — the educational system, systems of government, racial injustice, social injustices — we do not know yet make those big tides finally shift.
The organizations I am working with often have an ultimate goal of “systemic change” that I can support by developing products, services, and positioning towards that mission. But most often the leverage points I am looking for as a Designer will focus on what we can change within the organizational system of the team, their approach, and product strategy.
This is about know what you can change most immediately and what is a good use of your efforts and creativity.
Map the System
In terms of design activities, the first step is to Map the System.
Even very early stage ideas are already a systems with an origin, a direction of flow, and a destination it is trying to reach. They also have a founder, a team, partners, an audience, and a flow of money and resources.
If the product, service, or business we are creating is very nascent, and certain aspects of the system are still fuzzy, I use a Systemic Constellations process to clarify and bring some of the key parts of the system into sharper focus.
Designing for Self-Organization
I view products, services, and, and organizations as dynamic entities with information and resources constantly flowing in and out. By identifying blockages and applying interventions, systems can self-organize to regain momentum.
In my work, I draw on Donella Meadows’ view that a small shift can profoundly transform a system, even when all of the other elements remain the same.
When we find the right intervention, because systems are Self-Organizing, we can then stand back as the other elements in the system readjust around the intervention, getting things flowing more easily again.
Real World Applications
In the real world, my role as a Systems Thinking Designer aligns with Design and Leadership, for example:
• User Experience Strategy: Crafting strategies to elevate user experiences.
• Business Design: Aligning design with broader business goals.
• Visioning: Shaping the long-term vision for products and services.
• Brainstorming: Facilitating creative idea generation within teams.
• Leadership Training: Mentoring and guiding teams towards effective leadership.
The tangible outcomes of these activities include:
• Evaluation and Insights: Providing insights on current state experiences.
• Articulating an Organization’s Essence: Defining an organization’s core identity and brand principles.
• Defining Product Offerings: Clearly outlining core products and services.
• Understanding the Audience: Gaining in-depth knowledge of target audiences, their motivations, and behaviors.
• Optimal Team Positioning: Determining the ideal team positioning in relation to the audience and offerings.
• Leveraging Team Roles: Recognizing the team’s role within the evolving system and enabling them to implement interventions for change.
In essence, being a Systems Thinking Designer for me is about getting to foundational insights needed to develop positioning, branding, messaging, mission statements, and product positioning. It is humanistic, holistic, and often reflective. It is a generative approach to problem solving and creating new offerings in a way that is targeted, effective, and generative for all involved.