What kind of Systems Thinking Designer Am I?

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.

"A change in purpose changes a system profoundly, even if every element and interconnection remains the same.”
Donella Meadows

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.

What kind of Systems Thinking Designer are you? What positive change can you inspire in the systems you encounter?

Ruby Gibson on Reconciliation with Mother Earth

For over 30 years Dr Ruby Gibson and her Freedom Lodge organization have been working in Native American communities on the recovery from historical trauma. Following the method she developed “Somatic Archaeology” you begin with listening and bringing awareness to the great library of information and story each person is walking around with. As she says, recovering from trauma is not very hard when you have the right tools; trauma is just like a speed bump that is part of life. 

What intrigued me is that her conversation with Thomas Hubl, when asked where she wanted to take the work next , she said that she dreamed of doing healing sessions with the Earth herself, similarly to how you would with a person. 

To paraphrase: 

“It is like there is a fragility right now to nature, because humans have been careless in our relationship with her. So go to the places of hurt and listen to her. Offer your love and awareness, as a kind of repair. Go to the places that have been mined and drilled and bear witness to those scars in the earth. Go to the burial grounds, the places where there were battles, the places where there has been a lot of pain and wounding, and offer prayers and blessings so that we can come back into relationship with the earth.” 

Going on pilgrimage to the places of historical harms, to bring awareness and witnessing, is a practice I have been part of from the peace walks with the NE Peace Pagoda, and am curious to keep learning from. My understanding from systemic work is that for human beings to “find their place” again in relationship to the earth, we have to realize how young and new we are as a species, compared to the ancientness of the Earth. And that when we know our place, we see that is is absurd for us to attempt to “heal” the planet. What we can reconcile though is the relationship between humans and the earth, which is something different. This is where ritual and ceremony come in.

Falling out of the sky and surviving 40 days in the Colombian Amazon

You may have heard the story of the four children who survived a plane crash in the Amazonian jungle in Columbia and were found after 40 days. 

When the story first filtered through the news it was hailed as a triumph of the Columbian armed forces and the indigenous people working together. If you read more closely you can hear it as a story about the differences between an indigenous and western way of solving an almost impossible problem. 

There were seven people onboard the plane and when it had engine failure and went down in the jungle. The adults — the children’s mother and two pilots were found perished in the wreckage and there were signs that the four children from the indigenous Huitoto tribe, aged 13, nine, five, and one, had survived. But they were in such a deep part of the jungle it was nearly impossible for search crews to find them. The Columbian government deployed more than 100 soldiers but it was so dense and the conditions so difficult that many of them dropped out of the search. 

Meanwhile the eldest girl was taking care of her two younger sisters and younger brother. At 13 years old she had already been given the knowledge of how to live in the jungle. She had taken the baby and built a hammock in the trees for her where she was safe and happy. They knew which fruits could be eaten and they were eating cassava flour saved from the plane. 

After many days of searching one of the indigenous elders did a ceremony to dialogue with the spirit of the jungle about their predicament. They were in such a deep place where “no human was ever meant to go,” that the elder offered to the jungle his own life in exchange for the children. After a deal was made, he gave the Indigenous guard on the search team specific instructions on what to do when the children would be found the very next day, as they were. 

In his account of the search, Columbian activist Manual Rozental emphasizes that it was not technology or the armed forces that found them, but the indigenous knowledge and in particular women’s knowledge. 

Recommended Reading on Systemic Constellations

Constellations make sense intuitively when you see them in person, but are famously difficult to describe since they work from a place beyond words. These are some of the most helpful introductory materials available about the history of constellations, how they work, and what you can expect when you encounter the process for the first time.

Intro to Constellations Books

Some of the most recommended books for an introduction to constellations.

The Healing of Individuals, Families & Nations: Transgenerational Healing & Family Constellations

John Payne

The Language of the Soul: Healing with Words of Truth

John Payne

It Didn't Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle

Mark Wolyn

Family Constellations

Family Constellations was first popularized in Germany, in the aftermath of WWII. Some of the first discoveries were made with German families, who were looking at the after-effects showing up in the descendants of victims and perpetrators in the war. This article explains the origins, why there is often historical undertones in constellations, as well as how they are set up in a group process.

Where Germans Make Peace with Their Dead

by Burkhard Bilger. The New Yorker.

Businesses and Organizational Constellations

After seeing how constellations worked in a family system, early practitioners began extending the work to look at a wider range of systems, including businesses and organizations. Systemic constellations is now known as an effective tool for improving businesses. Jan Jacob Stam is one of the foremost practitioners and trainers for how constellations works in management, non-profits, and government.

Intro Video Courses

For those who are ready to dive a bit deeper, one of the first generation of constellators, Bertold Ulsamer, offers very a clear and practical video introduction to constellations. Many of them are free.

Introduction to Family Constellations with Bertold Ulsamer