Friday, September 24, 2010

Working with Systems Archetypes in Learning Contexts

Systems Thinking Learning: Stand Alone or Integrated?

This year I have been working with LEAD Europe (Leadership for Environment and Development) to integrate systems thinking effectively into the leadership curriculum. Last year, I contributed a stand alone module to the LEAD Training (Using Systems Thinking: How to Go from 140 PowerPoint Slides to 2), and think that this year's more integrated and incremental approach is much more effective, not least because with case-based training you have real content to use as examples and group work.

This year, in the first of the two LEAD Europe week-long training sessions, I introduced the overall concept of systems thinking, and two diagramming tools - Behaviour Over Time Graphs (or Reference Mode Diagrams), and Causal Loop Diagrams (or Feedback Loops). And we used lots of systems games to illustrate the points, I even created a new one called the Flash Mob Game.

The second LEAD Europe session just finished in Brussels earlier this month, and during that week the systems learning focused on Systems Archetypes. This is the first time I have gotten that far with systems thinking learning with a group, usually I only have time to get through the diagramming tools, so it was learning for me too!

10 Systems Archetypes and Where to Learn More

There are some very good resources about systems archetypes. I really like this paper by William Braun titled, The Systems Archetypes,  and the online resource Archetypes: Interaction Structures of the Universe by Gene Bellinger to list two.  These ended up being good references for the work that groups would be doing on this topic.

I could not imagine anything harder to understand and do something with, than me standing up for 1 hours and giving a lecture about the most common systems archetypes. According to Braun and Bellinger they include (sometimes the names differ slightly):

1. Limits to Growth (Limits to Success)
2. Shifting the Burden
3. Drifting or Eroding Goals
4. Success to the Successful
5. Escalation
6. Fixes that Fail
7. Growth and Underinvestment
8. Tragedy of the Commons
9. Accidental Adversaries
10. Attractiveness Principle

These names are intriguing, seem simple enough, although not completely self-explanatory. Still, using an hour of time to go through them, their generic structures, examples, and the insights thay they give sounded too passive and abstract to be useful to the learners.

Using Peer Learning, Even for Complex Issues

Over the time I had worked with this interesting cross-sectoral group of LEAD Associates, I had seen them to be real self-starters, and still maintaining a helpful stance towards one another. We had worked hard to create a collaborative co-learning space in this programme (rather than a competitive environment). So instead of "teaching" on this issue, I decided to support them as they made these archetypes meaningful for themselves. I started by giving a brief high level overview (e.g. what are they and why they can be helpful). To reinforce the message about paradigms, mental models and habits -which may hinder you from seeing the systems around you - I used 3 short systems thinking, experiential learning games (Colour/Flower/Furniture: See post How Deep Are Your Neural Pathways?), Pens, and Arms Crossed (watch Dennis Meadows run this game in the video Change is Difficult.

Then I put people in six randomly assigned (e.g. pick a card) groups, gave them some background resources, a flipchart template to fill in (see above photo), and had them pick a slip of paper with one of 6 of the archetypes written on it out of a hat. The groups were then given 45 minutes to create their own description of the archetype, give some examples of where they have seen these patterns in real life (including the context of the full-day simulation that we would be conducting on Day 4 of the training), give some insights about what one can do when you spot this particular pattern or archetype, and finally draw a Causal Loop Diagram that illustrates the concept. Each group then picked the name of an archetype out of my hat and that was their archetype for this exercise. They went outside and went to work.

What ensued was really peer learning and team learning: They used the handout resources, explored understanding, corrected any language or comprehension mis-matches, and told stories as examples from their own experience as well as from the case study of this module (the EU carbon emission targets) which was also the basis for the simulation.

When they returned to the plenary, they presented their archetypes and then answered questions/comments from the group, their peers.

When we started, no one had any experience with systems archetypes. However, by the end of this session (2.5 hours) they had a very deep understanding of one (and how it worked, and where it could be useful), and a good understanding of the others, as they listened and talked to their different peers presenting the explanations. For them, I am convinced that this was much better than sitting in chairs and listening to me talk and show them slides of 10 of the most common archetypes. In this scenario, they would not have had the practice identifying and using them.

Using Systems Archetypes

When I designed this session - self-taught systems archetypes - I wondered if it would work. I was pleased that it worked so well - the examples were excellent, the whole thing was personalized, and I could simply intervene to add stories or correct things, as needed. I had time to help groups that might have been stuck, and question them in ways that would get them to think about the issues at a different level.

To reinforce this learning later in the week, I offered a prize for anyone who used or referred to a systems archetype within the context of the simulation. Interestingly, I found many examples of how systems and the archetypes were being used. As a reminder of our archetypes, we kept all the flipchart explanations/diagrams in the room for the rest of the week.

I could have made up a job aid that described in that way all the archetypes, and simply presented it. But this way, the self-taught approach - with participants making their own set of personalized “job aids” for future use – turned out to be an extremely effective way to transfer messages and learning about systems archetypes.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

TEDx Change Geneva: The Future We Make

I was very honoured tonight to be able to speak after Melinda French Gates, Graca Machel, Hans Rosling, and Mechai Viravaidya at the TEDxChange event, hosted by the Gates Foundation. Well, this is technically true, although I was speaking on the TEDxGeneva local stage, which followed directly after the simulcast of the New York event.

Lizzie, representing tonight the Hub in Geneva, curated the event brilliantly. It started with the simulcast, a break and then four local speakers including Dr Robert Newman, a pediatrician at World Health Organization and Director of the Global Malaria Programme, Cheryl Hicks an independent business advisor in Geneva who spoke about the power of networks using CSR Geneva as an example, Patrick Keenan - one of the co-founders of the Movement, and me

I spoke about the power of systems thinking to help social change agents be even more powerful. How can we use the systems around us, close up feedback loops, and get systems to "do our work for us"? During my short talk (10 minutes!) I adapted a demonstration game called Living Loops, from the Systems Thinking Playbook. I used the game to demonstrate the difference between relationships that are linear and take an enormous amount of effort to change, and between systems that have feedback loops that are self-sustaining and can help you reach your goals.

The game helped me tell the story of my brother-in-law, who is working in Mutale in the Northeast of South Africa, and his community's efforts to start, among other things, a tomato growing business for income generation. When childcare issues threaten to challenge the sufficient engagement of the local labour force to make the business work (many families are run by a single head of household due to absentee parents working in the nearby mines), connecting the profits of the tomato business with creche management and maintenance helps to make this initiative self-sustaining - it satisfies the community's desire for income and parent's desire for secure and quality childcare while they work. We played the game demo using a tomato picked from my garden instead of a ball.

After hours of preparation, it's over now - whew! I enjoyed speaking at the TEDx event, although the quality of all the TEDTalks are so high, that it was extremely nerve wracking to prepare for and then to walk on that stage in front of 100+ people at the University centre in Geneva. We had one of 82 of the parallel TEDxChange events globally, all focused on the 10th anniversary of the Millennium Development Goals and The Future We Make. Big topic, big event, big night - just coming down off of my endorphin rush, and happy I did it!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Knowledge at a Distance: Skype Video - It Works!

We were very sad a few weeks ago when Joan Davis, one of our speakers, and a Switzerland-based founding member of the Balaton Group, let us know that she was not able to attend. She was to be an important part of our programme, focusing on organic agriculture, and scheduled for Day 3 of our annual Balaton Group Meeting on "Food Futures".

We are a group that focuses on sustainability, and very sensitive to travel and carbon emissions, so virtual contributions would be acceptable from a philosophical point of view. However, everything we have tried in the past to have virtual participation at our meetings has not really worked for many reasons. We thought we would try again this time, our of sheer necessity - and as I watch Joan on the big screen through skype video, we can see that it really works!

The quality of the connection, video and sound is excellent. We are just using a regular laptop with an integrated video, connected to a PPT projector, and a speaker connection (used for showing videos). The wifi is strong in this meeting room. So this is a good start - the technical support is great. However this is only part of our expectations.  One of our group's values is that speakers stay with us throughout the meeting. This means that they get to know the group and can connect with our conversations and help us move ahead in our thinking through their inputs and contribute substantively to generative dialogue. Too often speakers parachute in and give their usual talk and leave, especially easy for a web-based part of a programme, giving the feeling of disconnect and potentially taking a group off in another direction. Here are a few things that we did to get this depth of connection with a virtual speaker:
  • Skype connection previously in the meeting week: Joan has been monitoring the presentations and discussion all week, so she is able to make comments on the previous speakers points in her skype presentations.
  • Know the participants: She knows the participant group and can mention names of participants and their relevent backgrounds, and can mention them as people that the group can speak to for further engagement around some of her points.
  • Support the two-way conversation: As you can see in the photo above, the laptop on the desk of our Chair Kevin Noone is facing the group, so Joan can also see us. Conversely, seeing this small image of ourselves in the upper right hand of the screen helps us be aware of the 2-way nature of this conversation. The Chair is also actively moderating, repeating questions if the microphone doesn't pick them up, etc.
This was an excellent experience for the group, which has strong traditions and values around speakers contributions and social interaction during their events. However, in a time when travel restrictions (whether self-imposed or infrastructure/nature-imposed) and other things like health and finances increasingly keeping people home, this doesn't need to impede good quality knowledge exchange and dialogue that creates new ideas, new meaning and new initiatives. We believed this in theory, and now know this from experience.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Live from the Balaton Group Meeting in Iceland

We started our annual Balaton Group Meeting this morning (held this year in spectacular Selfoss, Iceland). Our topic this year is "Food Futures" and we have already heard several speakers on the topic, including Karan Khosla (Earthsafe in India) who presented a systems model aimed at conceptualising the issues. John Ingram from the Environmental Change Institute (Oxford) shared with us some shocking facts like 15-50% of all food that is grown is lost between the field and the plate. With him we explored the suggestion that alleviating food security by reducing food waste is much cheaper and more environmentally sustainable than just increasing food production. Other Balaton Group Members wondered what reducing waste would do to the GDP (the growth of which might depend somehow on this waste) - an efficiency and resilience discussion will follow in our afternoon Open Space workshops.

We also had 2 brave Pecha Kuchists on the topic: Laszlo Pinter, formerly of International Institute for Sustainable Development and now at Central European University on gathering agri-environmental evidence through an indicator process with OECD. Andrea Bassi from the Millennium Institute was the second, speaking about the agricultural aspects of UNEP's Green Economy Initiative.

We are currently in discussion and some very interesting ideas have come up, particularly sparked by a presentation about soil by University of Iceland Professor Vala Ragnarsdottir. She noted that currently soil erosion is 100 times faster than soil formation - and suggested that soil is a finite resource.

A systems map showed that the interactions of soil, people and food depend also on oil and mining (phosphorous). When these resources are gone/limited, what can soils deliver themselves and what can they recycle?

This brought up a few observations, such as the notion of "Peak Food", mentioned by Alan AtKisson, which sent shivers down our spines.

Our Thai Balaton Group member, Professor Chirapol Sintunawa, noted that Iceland is importing topsoil from around the world every day (through importing food from countries such as his). This took us into a discussion of the notion of "embedded soil" (as opposed to, or in addition to, embedded or embodied energy in the lifecycle of goods). Could this be a new part of the accounting methodology that helps people make decisions around use of goods?

Oh, the Balaton Group - an annual opportunity to disrupt our paradigms and challenge our mindsets, and be with old friends who feel the same way.