The recent history of the world had given me hope in the actions of global leaders guiding society towards a peaceful convergence of thought, actions and goals. The Millenium Development Goals, and now the Sustainable Development Goals, are good examples of this. We all want more opportunities and agency for our lives, and these positive goals and the actions of leaders promised to guide us there.
But formidable forces, both operating openly and behind the scenes, are creating events and the constant remapping of global systems in a way that limits our collective capacity to reach agreements. It feels that reaching a destination where we can find more resilience, more education, more health and less poverty for all is only a dream.
Systems practice can return some agency to us. A renowned professor in this field that guided Global Leadership Fellows on this methodology said: systems practice is a new type of technology and architecture of thought that can produce the key insights to guide our navigation through an increasingly connected, complex and chaotic world. Systems practice, as a new modern filing system, stands against the reductionist views of the world where problems stay solved once a solution has been found for the first time. Systems practitioners know better: they are able to recognize the common occurrence of unintended consequences that proves that keeping our conversations open after applying traditional fixes to our problems is a necessity.
I particularly liked the illustration offered around this topic of leaders as ‘circular’ thinkers. This illustration has challenged my own thinking and has prompted to depart from a mindset acquired after many years of training as an engineer. Once engineers learn equations and variables to control in physical and chemical systems, they expect outputs to be produced forever if those systems are provided with the right kind of inputs and controls. Discovering that this is not the way things work for social systems is both refreshing and enlightening. Intuitively, I knew this, and before I found myself conflicted inside. Now learning systems mapping techniques has helped me to understand this reality and has given me more hope and the confidence to lead in these turbulent and modern times.
The learnings from systems practice also enhanced my trust in evidence-based thinking to solve our global problems. I honestly resent and fear at the same time the rising power of false narratives that have overtaken our collective thinking by brute force. Social media has helped these untruths to gain strength, for it only takes a few words on Twitter or Facebook and virtual bots to make these false narratives viral and mainstream. Systems practice is good practice for true leadership because it provides a more realistic 3D view of truth. Systems practice supports evidence-based storytelling. This practice gives me depth to discover upstream causes for the downstream outputs of a system, while also giving me the liberty to expose my assumptions, fight my own biases and discover second order forces in the systems I intervene.
The theory of change supported by systems practice is encouraging. It is not about mission accomplished, but about creating healthy systems. It is not just about problems, but about recognizing patterns. It is not about planning and control, but about our capacity to adapt. The systems practice methodology creates space for discovery and disclosure in a world where so much despair and distrust exists. Feedback finds its rightful place beyond interpersonal and group dynamics as we recognize the existence of interconnected loops between forces in a system. We must recognize this if we are to truly understand a system, its present outcomes and its future possibilities. Change implemented through regular action, growing care and increased knowledge will be more sustainable and impactful. And decision rules must stop being mostly opportunistic and start giving people a sense of direction and hope.
My work at the World Economic Forum has already benefitted from this training on systems practice. I am already using the tools to discuss with my partners the implications of new technologies in transportation poverty (poverty created by lack of transport access), or to explain the importance of establishing new processes of innovation in the humanitarian community. Combined with design thinking skills, systems practice becomes a powerful, creative and inclusive exercise for the communities I manage. I can be an active contributor that catalyzes rich conversations, prompts the right kind of questions and promotes consistent engagement from those who hold the required expertise and the power to create compelling change.
One of my favorite mandates reinforced during my Global Leadership Fellowship is taking perspectives from others. In support of this mandate, systems practice provides me with dynamic boxes inside which I can place these perspectives for the good collective use. Systems practice also invites me to make my listening to others more open and less controlling. After all, control is futile in systems leadership because a solution today can easily become a problem tomorrow. Therefore, I am now more open to accepting that whatever brought me ‘here’ as an engineer, etc., may not be valid anymore to take me ‘there’ as a global leader.
Systems practice is a great tool and proxy for leadership in our VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) times. When most voices today call for friction and either/or positions, systems practice can set us free from the prison of our own cognitive frameworks. This training will be truly useful in my leadership toolkit when guiding others in this era of fractured narratives and more intense battles for the minds of men.
Below is a sample system map created for the question: How might we make investing in humanitarian innovation a mainstream activity for public and private actors seeking to build together social resilience ahead of humanitarian crises?