How systems thinking can help campaigners

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.

Cover photo: The Value Web (2010) Some rights reserved.

Emily Armistead

Emily Armistead is a campaigns consultant currently based in Auckland, New Zealand. She blogs about campaigning for the environment, development and human rights.

8 thoughts on “How systems thinking can help campaigners

  1. Well now… the opening diagram that led into the article is called a ‘mind map’ and the style was developed by Tony Buzan 40 years ago and is more multidimensional and creative than a ‘spider diagram’. Systems thinking has also been around for decades. In the diagram there is not one mention of dominance of multi-national corporations and banks that enforce a systemic conditions for the vast bulk of both ecological and the poverty traps. But, instead ‘we all have to take responsibility to do our bit’ – yes! What about responsibility to face the crimes at the top of organisations that lie at the core? Or perhaps thats a bit too controversial for oxfam who would prefer to be politically correct cartoon. Systems thinking? Yes, better late than never I suppose.

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    1. Thanks for your comment. The image was chosen to illustrate complexity and inter-relatedness not for its specific content. It’s taken from a photo library and doesn’t relate to either Oxfam’s nor my work.

      I completely agree that corporate power is a major consideration in tackling many of the big issues we campaign on. Much of my background is working on corporate campaigns, like StopEsso, which have challenged just that. I can’t speak on behalf of Oxfam but targeting corporate power appears to be one of the central themes of its GROW campaign. One could argue that it doesn’t go far enough but that’s a different discussion.

      Thanks for pointing out that systems thinking has been around for decades. I didn’t have time to go into its history in this blog. As far as I’m aware though, it’s only recently that it’s filtered into development and campaigning organisations even if some of us have had an awareness of its key concepts for a while.

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      1. Thanks for your intelligent reply and clarification. Yes, it seems to be a recent development for campaigning organisations and long awaited. As part of the collection of ‘complexity mathematics’, complex systems and its thinking are able to identify the closed loops invisible to linear thinking that create social and economic traps that often seem to accompany corporate strategies. I feel frustrated with Oxfam for taking so long because of their associations with Oxford and hanging out with some of the brightest minds in the UK (or perhaps they don’t hang out, I don’t know!) and because part of their remit is to address the ‘structural causes of poverty’ which systems theory is ideal. I would have really liked them to mention in their video the unique quality of complex systems called ’emergence’ more specifically, in which organically occurring organising principals arise spontaneously as this is a vital part of the style and strategy of using and applying systems theory as well as its greatest hope, and is behind the ‘humility’ bit. My best wishes, Chris

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