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Covid-19 means systems thinking is no longer optional

Ten ways to think bigger

By Seth Reynolds 9 April 2020 15 minute read

Never has the interdependence of our world been experienced by so many, so directly, so rapidly and so simultaneously. Our response to one threat, Covid-19, has unleashed a deluge of secondary and tertiary consequences that have swept across the globe faster than the virus itself. The butterfly effect has taken on new dimensions, as the reality of system interdependence at multiple levels has been brought directly into our homes and news feeds:

  • Individually, an innocuous bus journey sends a stranger to intensive care in a fortnight
  • Societally, health charities are warning that actions taken in response to one health crisis – Covid-19 – could lead to up to 11,000 deaths of women in childbirth around the world because of another – namely, 9.5m women not getting access to family planning intervention.
  • Governmentally, some systemic consequences of decision-making are there for all to see, while others are less immediately apparent – for example, Trump’s false proclamation of testing availability “for anyone that wants one”  ended up actually reducing the availability of tests by immediately increasing demand.  It even reduced the already scarce supply of protective masks, which must be disposed of after testing.

Students will be studying coronavirus for years. A systems lens can help us learn essential lessons. Covid-19 has provided many clear examples of effective systemic action, and stark lessons in the consequences of non-systemic thinking. Leaders and decision-makers everywhere are being compelled to think broader and deeper about causation and consequence. Decisions taken, even words spoken, without systemic awareness can have – indeed have had – profoundly damaging effects.

Systemic thinking, planning, action and leadership must now be mainstreamed – individually, organisationally, societally, across public, private and charity sectors. As one American diplomat recently reflected: “from climate change to the coronavirus, complex adaptive systems thinking is key to handling crises”. In fact, some epidemiologists, suddenly the world’s most valuable profession, have been calling for more systemic ways of working for years. However, we currently do not think and act in accordance with how our complex systems function and this has been part of the Covid-19 problem.


What are Systems Approaches?

Systems thinking goes beyond individual actions to connections, causes and consequences. Systems approaches incorporate tools and frameworks to help us do that, and to act in a way that reflects the complex and interconnected characteristics of our world. Systems are not external. We are part of them and we influence them, as demonstrated in the ‘butterfly effect’ examples above. Linked to this, complexity is a field that seeks to understand and work with the uncertain, non-linear, adaptive, self-organising nature of systems.

Systems thinking is often seen as peripheral and ethereal, with practitioners and theorists themselves sometimes sheltering in the comfort zone of ambiguity. Complexity, by nature, encompasses many perspectives and interpretations, and systems people are often eager to point to the subjective and interpretative nature of systems. But this doesn’t help much when an urgent systemic crisis demands a systemic response.

Coronavirus illustrates the need to bring systems thinking out of the clouds and into the mainstream. We must learn to think, act, and organise systemically, and develop processes, tools and technologies to help us. We don’t claim that it’s simple. But what is clear from recent weeks is that ‘business as usual’ is no longer available and systems approaches are no longer optional.

To ground these approaches, we have highlighted core systems thinking components that can help us learn from the current crisis. These are illustrated in the diagram below. It’s not a ‘how to’ guide for systems change. The numbers and sequencing below represent an ideal process – reality is rarely so ordered –  but they offer a structure for a systems change approach that can help us incorporate lessons from the current crisis into future decision-making, and better prepare us for the systemic challenges to come.

1. A shared understanding of complexity and interdependence

Scientists have commented that our failure to understand interconnection, what they describe as  ‘asystemic (or non-systemic) thinking’, left us unprepared and led to the delays that allowed the virus to spread unchecked for weeks. One commentator laments: “We had time to prepare for this… but we squandered it because of widespread asystemic thinking: the inability to think about complex systems and their dynamics… asystemic thinking may have cost America the entire month of February”.

Unconscious bias surely played a role. Wuhan seems far away. Despite being larger than London, most westerners had never heard of it. It’s hard to imagine its connection to us. Yet it is of course one of China’s new mega-cities, with more than 500 direct international flights a day. There was zero chance of containment given this interconnection and Covid-19’s long incubation period. Our failure to understand the interconnections of our system has already cost us almost 100,000 lives globally, a grim tally which will only grow in the weeks ahead.

For systems thinking to become systemic, by definition it must be shared. There is little value in a few specialists trying to think and act systemically if nobody else is. Historically this been one of the challenges of the discipline, and why it must be mainstreamed.

To act systemically we need to talk about complexity, interdependence, our experience of it, and our role in the systems we inhabit. The traumatic experience of Covid-19 has given these ideas new exposure and urgency. We must seize this opportunity to prevent future disasters from bringing yet more devastation.

2. A shared understanding of the problem

In addition to shared understanding of our systems in general, we also need a shared understanding of the specific problem. Climate change campaigners have long understood that effective systemic action is impossible without a shared understanding of the problem. This same lack of shared understanding allowed Covid-19 to spread like wildfire around the world whilst we interpreted, argued and prevaricated. In the US, federal fought with state, only acting when crisis was no longer plausibly deniable. In the UK, strategies shifted as infections silently spread. In many places, data and scientific consensus was disregarded until the last moment, often until it was too late. Yet eventually, virtually all affected nations have implemented the same approach, albeit piecemeal.

Coronavirus demonstrates the critical importance of shared understanding. An effective response required all actors in the system to be on the same page. The stealth-like and highly contagious nature of the virus turned everyone into an actor in the system, as we could all be propagating it unawares. Thus, an effective solution required all of us to reach a common understanding of the problem.

What makes systems change challenging is that it has deep emotional and psychological, not just intellectual, dimensions, and these can inhibit understanding. Arrogance, hubris and attachment to the status quo can blind us to what later seems incontrovertible. This has been apparent in many of the blame and denial responses.

For challenges at these scales, effective mass communication is key in building the shared understanding required. South Korean authorities have emphasised the critical importance of full, consistent and transparent communication in building shared understanding, as a key component of their widely lauded coronavirus response.

There are vital lessons here for agencies seeking to act systemically. Without shared understanding across all actors, underpinned by clear, consistent and transparent communication, systemic change will be impossible. Data is integral to building that understanding. Data can be the systems change agent’s greatest ally. In Covid-19, as with climate change, consistent and repeated reference to data has been vital in building shared understanding, however slow some might have been to accept it.

3. Identifying causal relationships

Central to systems approaches is understanding and working with causal relationships. Systems modelling and mapping tools help visualise the causal relationships and effects that may be hidden at first glance, or to predict what other effects could emerge. A range of mapping tools can help, at varying levels of complexity. The World Economic Forum have developed dynamic, interactive maps, shown below, to aid system-informed decision making. If we accept the principle of interconnectedness, then this practice should become integral to our decision making in complex systems.

For Covid-19, we quickly saw the causal effects of a lockdown strategy on issues as diverse as domestic violence, charity fundraising, and maternal health outcomes in Sub-Saharan Africa. Many of these causal relationships were known and predictable because of existing data and modelling. As systems approaches become mainstreamed, integration of data into modelling tools should help identify these second and third order consequences in advance, which will help us to mitigate accordingly.

4. Identifying leverage points

Systems approaches seek to identify leverage points (often done through mapping) at which to target interventions in a system.

For Covid-19, protective equipment for healthcare workers was the first critical leverage point. A second was the tracking and tracing of infected people, which initially allowed for more efficient intervention in the system, without which everyone must be treated as if infected (the lockdown strategy). This is what South Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong have done with impressive results, and what America and Europe have not.

Without successfully identifying leverage points for systemic action, responses will inevitably be scattergun and results less effective.


More on systems change:

Thinking big: How to use theory of change for systems change

Systems change: A guide to what it is and how to do it

Online and in-person systems change workshops


5. Foresight

Foresight can be integrated into a systems approach as it examines causation over time, which can aid projection and prevention. It highlights that there are multiple plausible future scenarios, re-examine our assumptions and current actions, and take actions to create the more desirable scenario. Covid-19 is rife with examples of foresight failure that significantly reduced system resilience. For example, Wuhan is the world centre of face mask production and was itself under lockdown from an orally transmitted virus, alarm balls were sounded but not heeded, and a White House pandemic preparedness office was closed last year.

Closer to home, the catastrophe facing prisons from coronavirus was warned of weeks ago. We’d seen the data from other countries, and we knew the mitigation strategies (suspended sentences, early release of especially vulnerable and non-violent offenders). Yet these actions were only agreed upon following sustained pressure and have still not been largely enacted, despite prisoners already dying. With testing patchy at best, it is believed hundreds of prisoners already have the virus and hundreds more will die. Covid-19 has brutally demonstrated that inaction is still action, and has consequences.

Of course foresight is easy in hindsight. There are clearly huge challenges foreseeing causation within complex systems. Better use of data from related situations can help inform timely and effective decision-making, as has now been done for example with modelling of Covid-19 infection rates for different movement restriction scenarios.

6. Systemic decision-making

Bringing this all together should result in coordinated strategies that go beyond treating a single issue in isolation to include key causal relationships, leverage points and data-driven foresight across a system. The crisis in the charity sector is a stark example of why we need systemic decision-making. Half of charitable organisations fear going under in six months without urgent support, depriving millions of people of vital services with untold costs to society and creating a plethora of crises to come. Preventing this catastrophe demands highly system-informed and aware decision-making.

7. Coordinated action

Strong coordination across spaces and sectors is often the difference between success and failure. This is true not just for crises but for all complex problems. Our sector and our world may look quite different once the system-changing impacts of coronavirus are laid bare. We will need to re-map, identify new leverage points, and act in consort with others across our system. With resources scarcer and services stretched, coordination across agencies and sectors will be more than just a nice-to-have. For many, this represents a new way of working. We’ll all have to work much harder to grow our capacity for coordination and collaboration.

8. Reflexive review

Cycles of action, review, learning and adaptation are well established. As complex systems are dynamic and adaptive, so must be our responses.

Systems approaches encourage us not just to reflect, which implies a linear looking-back at actions and consequences, but to be reflexive. Being reflexive is a continual and cyclical process of conscious reflection both individually and collectively. We need to be continuously aware of our own actions and behaviours, and their impact on our systems.

Many of us will be reflecting on our own responses to coronavirus. Did we stockpile leading to shortages of vital goods for vulnerable groups? Did we ignore social distancing? Did we unwittingly infect? The fact that you are probably reading this in lockdown is a sobering illustration of how we effect the systems we inhabit. We now have an opportunity to pause and consider our system effectiveness. Confined to the ‘Great Indoors’, the CEO of the Scouts is encouraging us to take the opportunity to radically think what we do and how we do it, not because we have to, but because we should. Systems approaches encourage us to take this awareness beyond a single point of reflection and into the continuity of our actions.

9. Shared learning

In systems approaches, learning is not the property of academics or professionals, but rather all actors in the system share the learning that is needed for continual improvement in system behaviour. This is only possible through collective reflection. We’re all hoping that once Covid-19 is over, future pandemic preparedness will improve.  This learning should not be assumed, but made explicit, to avoid the danger of repeating mistakes. Perhaps the stark difference in response in South Korea and Singapore to our own was from people’s memory of SARS. Following Covid-19, our shared experience of system interconnectedness may help us understand other present and future complex and adaptive challenges, and thus respond more effectively.

10. System leadership

Finally, leadership is needed to create the conditions for these system approaches to flourish. System leadership, a term coined by organisational learning expert Peter Senge, describes the capacity to act effectively across a diverse and complex system. Logically, this requires skills in embracing diverse perspectives, deep listening, consensus-building and inspiring action. It is a humble, transparent, self-reflective and system-aware leadership that catalyses collective responsibility.

Through this crisis we have seen the catastrophic impacts of a non-systemic leadership that blames, divides, fails to act. The experience of Covid-19 could form the foundation of how we address the complex challenges to come. How leaders respond will determine the course of the next decade and possibly beyond. Organisational learning experts point out that: “The same disruption tends to have a dramatically different impact on different organizations, depending on how the leadership — and people or change-makers in general — respond to that situation.”

Covid-19 has frozen our juggernaut of constantly accelerating activity. As we approach and pass the peak, we need system leadership to reboot and rebuild our organisations, sectors and society. We may need to reskill, reboot and reimagine at individual, organisational and sectorial levels. But we first need to pause. Our ability to change the juggernauts path once it restarts will be determined by how we now take this collective breath.

Seth Reynolds leads our research on systems change. For more of our work on how philanthropists can respond to coronavirus, head to thinkNPC.org/coronavirus.

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