The Elephant of Complex Systems Change
Updated: Mar 25
[This article is also available in PDF format.]
People often ask how I came to do the work that I do today. I usually say, “I had no plan. I just wanted to learn about a lot of things, I love people, and I wanted make a difference, and so I ended up doing what I do.”
Not the most helpful reply, I admit, but true at least.
The next question is often a variation of “If I want to do what you do, what should I learn?” If that might be a question in your own mind, read on…
Okay. This is a tougher question to answer, in part because I’m not you and in part because it’s like trying to describe a whole elephant all at once. In our approach to systems change, a number seemingly disparate disciplines come together and each performs a useful function, so it’s hard to take them apart. To answer the question of what one should learn to do this work, should I focus on design thinking, systems thinking, Agile, Lean, or maybe (the thing I use the most but that most people have never heard of) Gestalt Facilitation? I can’t talk about all of them at once but none of them alone will answer the question.
This article is an attempt to at least outline the whole elephant—all the fields and concepts that we tend to use at CoCreative. I’m laying out the 27 fields and over 200 concepts and practices that we draw on—sometimes daily, sometimes occasionally—in our work. It’s a picture that to us seems coherent, unified, and whole, but to others may seem like a disparate collection of theories, models, and methods.
I hope the latter is not the case—and that people do see how these thing work together, but I did wonder if I was taking a worthwhile chance with this article. For people wanting to do this work (and we actively support more people in doing this work!), I do not want this article to be overwhelming. I especially do not want anyone to conclude that, “I can’t study or learn all that stuff, so I won’t be successful in this work”… because that’s just not true.
One benefit of CoCreative's experience in drawing from across these fields is that we have taken some of the best concepts and tools from them (those we use most often) and pulled them together into an approach and training program that conveys the key elements of each more simply and practically than they tend to appear in their native contexts. For example, the typical methods used in systems thinking are complex and, we think, largely impractical with diverse groups, so we’ve developed and captured ways of mapping systems that are practical and that nearly anyone can do (and you can find these on our Tools page).
We also provide tools and insights from these fields in our coaching and consulting work so our clients typically learn them at a time and at a stage of work when they are relevant and their value is immediately apparent. In other words, you don’t need to learn all the bits and pieces of the fields below—and you likely won’t, but you can be successful anyway with the right support.
One more note before I share the whole elephant:
At the last minute and on Maren’s advice, I divided the 26 fields into 4 sections, with those we use most often in section 1 to those we use least (but still love) in section 4. We hope that if you decide to study any field directly (and consult the primary sources for yourself) this simple weighting will give you some sense of what might be most valuable for leading your own multi-stakeholder collaboration.
That final addition also yielded a valuable insight: The most useful fields in our work are the ones that deal with how we think and how we perceive what’s going on in the system and within ourselves, rather than on specific steps, behaviors, or tools. That makes sense because what we see (or don’t see), what we believe (or don’t believe), and how we make sense of the world together have a much more profound impact on the effectiveness of our work than any specific action we might take or not take.
Here it is: The Whole Elephant
The first part, and in many ways the basis of Collaborative Innovation, is the work of Susan Davis and her KINS approach to building social innovation networks. KINS is a basis for identifying the right people for a network and creating the foundation for effective collaboration ins very diverse groups. And then there's the magic of Susan added in, with her almost unique ability to identify the people who can collaborate effectively to lead real transformation (that's probably not easy to teach, except by doing what Susan does and embrace your intuition!).
And here's the rest of the elephant:
(scroll over the table to see more or download this article as a PDF)