One of my goals for 2022 is to become a better "systems thinker."
Systems thinking is a holistic approach to analysis focusing on the way that a system's parts interrelate and how systems work over time and within the context of larger systems.
That definition is opaque, so let's unpack it with an example from the realm that I work in – public policy.
Suppose you have a team of professionals (e.g., lawyers, policy analysts, project managers, nurses, doctors, etc.) that need to develop a comprehensive understanding of several systems to implement a new piece of health legislation that will affect millions of people.
To develop and implement the legislation, the team must understand the:
- problem at hand
- social environment
- economic environment
- interests of the population and what makes them tick
- broader legal context and how this legislation might impact it (e.g., how might new laws affect old laws?)
- technological implications
- Tax/financial impacts the legislation might have on people
Policy professionals must be able to connect all of the dots far and wide across different systems to ensure the best outcomes for citizens or whoever they are developing policy and legislation for. Additionally, they must think about how the above systems are interrelated and play off of each other.
As a student, I was primarily taught how to conduct analysis in a linear fashion (i.e., step-by-step) but the problem with this approach is that it's too narrow when dealing with multifaceted, complex problems. Linear thinking and analysis tend to ignore complex systems, sometimes on purpose, and instead focus on an aspect (or just a few aspects) of a system.
Getting better at systems thinking means practicing systems thinking, so earlier this year, I set out to find a practical systems thinking program.
Many of the programs and courses I came across looked pretty boring until I stumbled across a problem called "Ready, Set, Future!" on Coursera.
"Futures thinking" refers to the methods and techniques employed by professional futurists to study the future.
Futures thinking is a creative and exploratory process using divergent thinking, which seeks many possible answers to complex issues and questions.
It's a different mindset in comparison to analytical thinking which uses convergent thinking to seek answers and reduce uncertainty.
Given the interrelated nature of systems and futures thinking, I figured I could learn about systems thinking my studying the techniques futurists use to map future scenarios (futurists don't really predict the future).
The program consists of five courses which can be completed at your own pace:
- Collaborative Foresight
- Forecasting Skills
- Urgent Optimism
- Ready, Set, Future!
- Simulation Skills
I had never completed a whole program through Coursera and I was a bit reluctant to invest a significant amount of time into a program with no real certificate at the end; however, as I waded into the content my apprehension was immediately mitigated because of the high quality of the program.
In this post, I highlight the top three benefits of the course and why you should check it out if you're looking to improve your systems thinking (or futures) skills.
It will improve your ability to think about and analyze problems
Humans are the only creatures with the ability to think about and make plans for the long-term future, but our brains make this challenging for us.
There are several neurological roadblocks that stop us from effectively thinking about the future and this is because the:
Future is inherently uncertain—and the brain loathes uncertainty. For our brains, the experience of uncertainty is both cognitively taxing and subjectively aversive. In fact, processing uncertainty is so unpleasant that it affects decision making, mental risk assessment, and even our ability to learn.
This is because the brain values certainty in a very similar manner to how it values food, sex, and social connection. And since a sense of certainty offers a perceived control over the environment that is in itself inherently rewarding, the brain treats uncertainty —and the inability to predict the future—as a source of deep discomfort. — Quartz at Work
The inability to effectively think about the future leads us to make faulty assumptions about which futures are likely or unlikely to happen.
We need a way to unstick our brains and change the way we think about complex problems and the future that they may give rise to.
This is super important when developing policy and legislation because the policy and legislation must be future proof; to a certain extent, it must consider the changing social and economic landscape. Far too often, government's design policy and legislation to tackle problems right in front of them without thinking about how that problem is going to change and evolve over time.
The Coursera program teaches learners "simulation skills" to help us overcome neurological roadblocks so we can think about the future more strategically and creatively.
For example, one of the techniques is called the "XYZ method" or "remembering the future" and learners are instructed to identify:
- Something that they love to do (X)
- A person they care about. This must be someone you know and that is still alive (Y)
- A favourite place in the world that you've been only a limited number of times (Z)
Then, you should imagine yourself doing X with Y at Z – ideally, you should not have done this activity with this person in this location before.
You should picture your scenario in your mind's eye until it feels like a real memory – until it feels real.
According to the scientific research, this exercise forces your brain to take a leap of faith and simulate a potential future.
Coined "specificity training" by experts, the exercise helps train our brains to think about the future and how different phenomena are connected.
While it may seem basic, multiple studies have shown this exercise to be effective in improving/restoring future imagination.
The program is chalked full of techniques and exercises to help change your thought processes. Other academic programs I've completed fail to do this – you read, memorize, and write, but often, there's not a lot of focus on improving thinking processes at the ground level.
Tools to help you think and lead
Every course in the program is packed with beautifully designed templates, tools, and guides that walk you through how to think more strategically and creatively.
For example, one of the tools that is provided is called a "futures wheel."
A futures wheel is a visual tool enabling structured brainstorming that allows one to explore the direct and indirect consequences of a decision, event, or trend.
This was a document that I could print off and fill out myself while working on a tough problem at work or for a client, or use as a guide to engaging with stakeholders at a meeting.
Often, the templates and frameworks provided were novel and unlike anything I'd seen before (i.e., not your typical PEST or SWOT documents). They reflected years of research and experience and when applied, got me thinking differently about problems.
For example, the "Equitable Futures Toolkit" was a 32-page document outlining a collection of games, exercises, and activities to get teams thinking about how to create more equitable solutions to various types of social and economic problems.
Many of the tools and templates came with helpful guides to assist facilitators that might be running focus groups or other large, stakeholder engagement sessions.
This was immensely helpful as it took the guesswork out of how to effectively walk people through the various exercises.
Again, I found that the tools forced learners to think in a multidisciplinary way and consider how various forces (e.g., technology, social, economic, etc.) interact and influence each other. This directly helps improve your systems and big-picture thinking.
Top-notch lectures and content for a small price
The program content was polished and concise, which delivered maximum benefit – there wasn't much filler.
The lectures were primarily led by Jane McGonigal but featured a good selection of experts and academics that made them entertaining and engaging.
The discussion boards were not always comprised of the most professional people; however, most learners contributed extensively to the online discussion and it was interesting to see how others thought through problems and applied the lessons to their own experiences.
Of course, some people were simply going through the motions (why even bother, there's no formal academic credential delivered upon completion), but it didn't detract much from my own learnings. It's just a bit of a reminder that you're not taking an in-depth, graded course at a large research university.
Overall, my systems thinking improved by enrolling in the course and it was an interesting way to learn elements of systems thinking. Months later, I still find myself logging into the course to access content and tools to apply at work or to help me through problem-solving roadblocks.