I just came across a great new animation from Oxfam about systems thinking. The animation accompanies a more detailed guide produced for programme staff but is just as relevant to campaigns.
Systems thinking is increasingly being used by campaigners wanting to make sense of the complex world in which we operate. The problems we’re trying to solve like climate change or inequality relate to complex and inter-related systems that cut across technical, political, social and economic issues. This complexity and interrelatedness explains why some of our traditional approaches to campaigning don’t always work. Too often we focus on linear pathways to change, or very blinkered objectives. This can lead to unintended consequences, for example a techno-fix solution to an environmental problem causing another problem down the line. Or to campaigning which feels like a game of bat-the-rat, as a small victory is won whilst another menace emerges.
Taking a systems approach might help deal with some of this and get us closer to the holy grail of ‘systemic change’.
But it means a rethink of how we go about things. Organisations (and funders) need to be more flexible and accommodate more iterative planning. We need to take more risks to allow innovation. That means allowing ourselves to fail and learning from our mistakes. And according to Oxfam, we need to take a more multi-stakeholder approach to how we plan and do things. That means cultural changes for campaign groups of the kind I’ve written about before.
A major challenge for campaign strategists is making sense of the complexity and knowing how to focus a campaign’s efforts. It’s all very well having an understanding of the crazy post-modern world we operate in but how do you know where to begin? Exercises like problem trees and power-mapping can help. We also need to allow more time for planning and plenty of review points built into our campaigns’ timelines.
Have a look at the animation and let me know what you think. I’d love to hear what planning tools and approaches your organisation is using to deal with complexity and to take a more systemic approach.