Participatory solving of complex problems using Systems Thinking

For centuries people have developed and used models as a means to transparently simplify and generalize key features of the complex world they live in. Such models allowed society to thoughtfully communicate, deliberate over, and decide amid the uncertainty of a changing world. Graphic tools such as conceptual models open the discussion of complex systems to include people who find verbal descriptions too long and complicated. Often a single model replaces pages of text required to describe all of the variables and their interactions. Systems thinking provides an easily accessible graphic language to develop mutual understanding between team members or stakeholders from very diverse backgrounds spanning policy, science, business and local practice. This new language promotes shared understanding of root causes of complex problems and, in consequence, leads to lasting, systemic solutions.

Facilitating groups for understanding and change

Groups, either as teams from single organizations or as assembly of representatives of  different organizations, possess an enormous potential and capacity to achieve outstanding outcomes. However, this potential is often wasted by concentration only on problem solving neglecting the social processes. Appropriate planning and facilitation of group process can dramatically improve performance. Building on rich variety of knowledge and skills of group members, supporting their full participation allows them to reach mutual understanding and develop new creative ideas. This leads to inclusive solutions backed by overall commitment for implementation.

Development of system dynamics and agent-based computer models

Simulation models provide an opportunity for an analytical and dynamic view of complex situations making possible to analyze alternative scenarios. Such models are usually most effective if developed in a participatory way. They can be built to test hypotheses put forward in while solving complex problems or in research projects. It is possible to analyze alternative strategies in such models providing tests of their effectiveness. In this way the simulation model could provide additional verification of experts’ concepts on leverage points and niche strategies – it’s a common feature of complex systems that well-intentioned strategies bring often unexpected consequences.

Development of Simulation Games and Management Simulators

Simulation Games are very effective tools to increase engagement, understanding and commitment to change.  Such games can represent a “stylized” representation of the main project area in an understandable, user friendly and engaging form. The game can be played either during workshops or through the Internet – many players from different places could play at the same time (multi-player games). They create an opportunity to experience the main points of any subject or area with its difficulties and obstacles – as well as to practice collaboration to achieve desired outcomes. Our experience is that games often lowers resistance, stimulates engagement and increases commitment to action – that may be especially important with skeptical audiences.

Policy Exercises (Simulations)

Policy failures of the past century often resulted from over-reliance on top-down approach and inadequate appreciation of the diversity of ways decisions are made at all levels of society. Policy resistance (Sterman 2000) was the frequent, tragic result, reversing initial successes with policy failure. Optimal solutions developed by scientists and policy makers more than often proved to be useless in the world of entangled interests and intensive conflicts. Consequently understanding and analysis of complex policy issues is often hampered by the high costs of gathering data about how various members of society actually think and decide about such issues. Similarly, scientists and policy makers often must invest years to gain experience critical to managing systems that change and evolve without undertaking real risk (Sterman, 1994). This raises the question: Can we lower the costs of learning through experience to create better policies?

Policy Exercises (Duke and Guerts 2004), also known as Open Simulations, emerged to fill this gap. Such exercises use social simulation tools that combine computational models and participation of real actors. These mediate collaboration between actors and scientists in analyzing how problems emerge in complex systems and where points of policy intervention may lie. Because they are experienced as something that feels real, more information is retained, learning is faster, and an intuition is gained about how to make real decisions and improve policies. The sophistication of the approach allows even untrained actors to engage in highly complex decisions. Policy exercises are highly flexible and leave room for the demonstration of individual initiative and imagination (Ladousse, 1987).

Research support with Systems Methods and Tools

Systems methods have been widely used in achieve diverse research goals. The initial impact of the so called “hard” systems approach, used for developing complex models and sophisticated expert analysis, have been broadened to include “soft”, intangible factors and accompanying methods.

Conceptual modeling can be used both in the scoping phase of research projects to achieve mutual understanding of research team, bring forth stakeholders perspectives and better formulation of research hypothesis as well as later stages to integrate research findings.

Simulation models bring precision to test the dynamic consequences of taken assumptions. They provide additional opportunity to test research hypotheses. In the form of simulators they can be used to disseminate research findings.

Games can also be used as research tools to test behavioral hypotheses about agents and their decision making rules. Careful observation of players’ behavior during games as well as games outcomes can greatly contribute to knowledge elicitation. Finally games are excellent tools for dissemination of research results. Unlike passive information transfer they engage target audience, leading to a deeper insights and retention.

Knowledge Management

Knowledge management emerged as a new interdisciplinary area gaining popularity among both academics and practitioners. Its basic premise is recognizing knowledge as a key driver of organizational performance and success. Issues of knowledge generating and sharing may become even more important in a multi-party or network collaboration contexts. Shared, easily available knowledge greatly enhances the capacity of groups and networks to achieve its goals.

Knowledge management is critical for change agents. Successful knowledge management needs to integrate the information, human and strategic perspectives. It uses both conceptual framework and a diverse set of tools for knowledge discovering, organizing, and brokering.

Systems Thinking Education

There is already a broad recognition of the importance of systems thinking. But it is far from obvious how to help people understand this approach and how to train them to use it effectively.

Education courses and workshops offered by the Centre for Systems Solutions build on more than a decade of experience in systems education. They employ experiential, learner-centered approach to maximize learning outcomes as well as participants’ satisfaction.