I’m facilitating a peer learning course on practical networked leadership skills with a group of community foundation leaders for the Knight Digital Media Center and part of the “practice” is having conversations and sharing thought provoking ideas with our professional networks via social media. Rebecca Arno was doing some research on systems thinking, found this excellent, very friendly visual that defines systems thinking as:
- Looks at the big picture
- Talk about ideas and listen to the ideas of others
- Be patient when things get confusing or complicated
- Check results and changes actions if needed, getting better and better
- Consider how our thinking affects what happens
- Figure out the effect of actions
- Find the keys to a system
- Identify how connections change over time
- Think about change over time
- Looks for ways to help system work better, doesn’t blame
- Looks at things from different sides
It made me wonder about the similarities and differences between “systems” and “networks.” Heather McLeod Grant, a colleague who works at the intersection of social change leadership, networks, and systems, explained it to me like this: “A system describes a wicked or complex problem that is the object of change, while a network is a group of people or institutions in relationship working on activities to change the system.”
I shared a copy of the visual on my Facebook wall and asked colleagues who are involved in social change networks, wondering out loud about the overlaps between “system leadership” and “network leadership.” June Holley, guru of network weaving, said “Big overlap! I think systems help us find those key places where change/transformation is more likely to happen. Network leadership is about helping many people identify and grapple with systems collaboratively. But I love the one about ‘Identify how connection cause change over time.’ The common thread for these two leadership approaches is the value of sharing versus control, recognizing that social change issues can’t be solved by a single player or hero.
Hildy Gottlieb added that the diagram is missing the word “context” because “systems thinkers don’t just “look at” things, it is the way they see (subtle difference, but a big one in effect). They see everything through the lens of the system as a whole, and therefore are always seeing how the pieces fit and interact. That’s different from just looking at the big picture (one can always look away, and non-systems-thinkers often do. Consider the strategic planning session that starts with establishing a vision, and then jumps right into reacting to the present – vision is not the context, just a quick look).”
Systems thinkers will not consider the small picture unless it is in the context of the big picture.
Sara Shapiro-Plevan, a network weaver in NY, mentioned that the visual speaks to helping the different parts of our systems AND networks learn visually and in ways that are thought provoking and challenging. Sara has just posted an update about gathering in New York City for Network Weavers to share insights about their work related to network leadership and a healthy network. They started with June Holley’s definition of a network weaver and did a simple reflection exercise.
June Holley’s definition of a network weaver: “A Network Weaver is someone who is aware of the networks around them and explicitly works to make them healthier. They do this by helping people identify interests and challenges, connect people strategically where there is potential for mutual benefit and serving as a catalyst for self-organizing.” By this definition, Network Weavers are system thinkers, if not system leaders as well.
Janne Flisrand, a network weaver based in Minnesota who I met last month at a gathering of network designers and weavers here in San Francisco, recently shared a reflection from a similar meeting of network weavers in Minnesota — all from different networks with different purposes and scale. She talked about the magic of connectivity – by convening people and providing the space for conversations, it is a way to talk about ideas and listen to the ideas of others, another systems thinking competency.