top of page
  • Writer's pictureRuss Gaskin

The Elephant of Complex Systems Change

Updated March 12, 2023

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 of 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 28 fields and over 200 concepts and practices that we draw on—sometimes daily, sometimes occasionally—in our work. It’s a picture that may look like a disparate collection of theories, models, and methods but is really coherent, unified, and whole.

To be honest, I did wonder if I was taking a worthwhile chance with this article. For people aspiring to do systems change work (and we actively encourage 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 and pulled them together into an approach that leverages the key benefits 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 28 fields into 4 groups, with those we use most often in group 1 to those we use least (but still love) in group 4. We hope that if you decide to study any field directly (and consult the primary sources for yourself) this 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 in 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 embracing your intuition!).

And here's the rest of the elephant:

Group 1: We use this Stuff All the Time

These 5 fields form the core of our approach at CoCreative.


An approach to working with individuals and groups that centers on how people experience and shape reality

Concepts and Methods: Intent, figure-ground, group energy and the cycle of experience, emergence, Pragnanz, similarity, continuity, proximity, closure, paradoxical theory of change, levels of system, bringing the difference that the group lacks, congruence, use of self, presence, modeling, experimentation, managing energy, satisfying units of work

Dialogic Meaning-Making

A body of theory and practice to support generative conversations that address limiting assumptions and create new possibilities

Concepts and Methods: Generative meaning making, change metaphors, covert processes, diverging and differentiating before converging and integrating, emergence, core story-lines, basic assumptions, generative images, Lego® Duck exercise, turning questions into statements (to reveal interests and concerns)

Design Thinking

An approach to solving problems that leverages the creative strategies that designers uses to design products and services

Concepts and Methods: Human-centered perspective, ethnography, empathy and grounding strategy in the human experience, prototyping to learn, "how might we?" questions, design criteria

Systems Thinking

A way of understanding a whole system and the dynamics within that system to create more resilient and powerful solutions

Concepts and Methods: Seeing the whole system and its dynamics, and the human experience within that system, impact of structure on behavior, feedback loops, archetypes and traps, levels of system, leverage points

Polarity Thinking

A framework for seeing and leveraging the values tensions that underlie most group dynamics

Concepts and Methods: Seeing and leveraging underlying values tensions, greater purpose, deeper fear, corrections, vicious and virtuous cycles, tunnel vision, forecasting, correcting, scapegoating, The Pendulum, interdependence, gap analysis, fixes that fail, multarities

Group 2: We Use this Stuff Often

These fields give us concepts and tools that make the work move faster or go deeper so we tend to use them fairly often, especially in virtual and in-person work sessions. Our use of some of these areas, such as racial equity, varies based on the type of challenge we're working on (e.g. more social or more environmental) but tend to inform our work regardless of the type of challenge.

Lean Startup

An approach to rapidly testing, validating, and adapting an idea to turn it into reality

Concepts and Methods: Rapid prototyping, minimum viable products, eliminating uncertainty, demonstrating and validating progress, fail fast/fail early


A “time boxed” and iterative approach to solving problems incrementally rather than through a single process of analysis, development, and delivery

Concepts and Methods: Working versions, collaboration versus negotiation, adapting to change in real-time, rapid iteration, testing and focus on continual creation of value

Resource: Agile Business: A Leader's Guide to Harnessing Complexity by Bob Gower and Rally Software


The study and practice of how to most efficiently and effectively get a group from point A to point B by leveraging knowledge of group dynamics

Concepts and Methods: Divergence, convergence, ambiguity, uncertainty, shared frameworks, open discussion, closure, the “Groan Zone”

Resource: Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision-Making by Sam Kaner and Michael Doyle

Racial Equity

Work specifically on advancing racial equity, as distinct from diversity and inclusion work, which is often internal to organizations

Concepts and Methods: Multi-level racism (intrapersonal, interpersonal, institutional, systemic), historical trauma, white supremacy culture, privileged resistance, intersectionality

Group 3: We Use this Stuff Sometimes

We borrow—and often adapt—concepts from these fields to make our work more effective. While we may use them more implicitly in our work (e.g., we’re not usually talking with network participants ABOUT storytelling and narrative), they each provide helpful lenses and concepts that make the work better. Sometimes, as with the field of Strategy, we get at the same outcomes using approaches from the fields above, so while the fields below seem important (and are in other contexts), they’re not as critical for us.

Theory U

A model for improving the quality of awareness, attention, and consciousness among the people in a system to produce better outcomes

Concepts and Methods: Supporting presence from absence, sensing the system and me within that system, helping the system to sense itself, holding the space of listening, observing, sensing, presencing, crystalizing, prototyping, performing

Resource: Theory U: Leading from the Future as It Emerges by C. Otto Scharmer

Project Management

The study and practice of getting projects done in ways that both achieve specific goals and meet specific success criteria

Concepts and Methods: Constraints model, project structure, clear goals, transparency about project status, risk recognition, managing disturbances

Resource: Project Management for the Unofficial Project Manager by Kory Kogon, Suzette Blakemore, James Wood


The study and practice of how to develop stories and narratives that inspire, align, and motivate people to do wonderful things

Concepts and Methods: Generative stories, hero's journey, archetypes, framing, empathic narrative, strategy as story, storyboarding, "talking story"

Resource: Circle of the 9 Muses: A Storytelling Field Guide for Innovators and Meaning Makers by David Hutchens

Cultural Difference & Competency

The study of cultural differences in values, meaning-making, problem-solving

Concepts and Methods: Axiology, dimensions of cultural difference, philosophical aspects of culture difference

Resource: Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind by Geert Hofstede, Gert Jan Hofstede, and Michael Minkov; "The Philosophical Aspects of Cultural Difference" by Dr. Edwin Nichols


The study of how to define a unique and valuable proposition, and how resources, skills, and competencies should be combined to deliver on that proposition

Concepts and Methods: Strategic paths, scenarios, strategy is as much about what you don't do and what you do, environmental scanning

Resources: Strategy Safari: Complete Guide Through the Wilds of Strategic Management by Henry Mintzberg and Bruce Ahlstrand; Value Proposition Design: How to Create Products and Services Customers Want (Strategyzer) by Alexander Osterwalder, Yves Pigneur, Gregory Bernarda, Alan Smith, Trish Papadakos

Complexity, Networks

An approach to understanding and dealing with natural and artificial systems as they are, and not by simplifying them or breaking them down

Concepts and Methods: Emergence, path dependence, adaptation, self-organization, tipping points, powerful attractors, signals, boundaries, snap-back, networks, network nodes, network edges, feedback loops, whole system, synergy

Resource: Complexity: The Emerging Science at The Edge of Order and Chaos by M. Mitchell Waldrop; Signals and Boundaries: Building Blocks for Complex Adaptive Systems

by John H. Holland

Scientific Method

A method of knowledge creation involving systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses

Concepts and Methods: Hypotheses, testing, learning intent, provisional knowledge, intersubjectivity

Resource: Take any good science class!


The study of how to develop new and valuable things that didn’t exist before, and how to get those developments adopted by others

Concepts and Methods: Four levels of innovation, ideation, concepts and prototypes, iterative design, adoption curve, spiraling, and adoption of innovation, desirable-feasible-viable, innovation funnel, innovation matrix, intuition pumps

Resource: Implementing Diversity by Marilyn Loden (yes, you read that right)

Consulting Practice

The study and practice of developing and satisfying clients for a consulting practice

Concepts and Methods: Assumptions, goals, client commitment, consultant roles, types of clients, contracting, resistance, feedback, action planning, implementation

Resource: Flawless Consulting: A Guide to Getting Your Expertise Used by Peter Block

Group 4: We Don’t Use this Stuff that Often, but We Love It!

One could build a whole approach to collaboration (and some people have) based on just one of the fields below. Although we didn’t do that, we have studied these fields and they’ve informed our thinking and we occasionally experiment with and use concepts and methods from these fields.

Appreciative Inquiry

An approach to organizational and social change that focuses on identifying what is working well, understanding why it is working well, and then doing more of it

Concepts and Methods: Constructionist mindset, simultaneity, poetic, anticipatory, positive; positive core, wholeness, enactment, free choice, narrative

Resource: Appreciative Inquiry for Collaborative Solutions: 21 Strength-Based Workshops by Robyn Stratton-Berkessel

Open Space Technology

A method for convening groups around a specific question or task of importance and giving them responsibility for creating both their own agenda and experience (note that the term "open space" is often used to refer to any unstructured process but Open Space Technology employs a defined set of principles and methods to enable groups to set their own agendas and organize group meaning-making and working sessions together)

Concepts and Methods: Law of Two Feet, Bumblebees and Butterflies, following the energy, what happens is the only thing that could have happened

Resource: Open Space Technology: A User's Guide by Harrison H. Owen

Organizational Learning

The process of creating, retaining, and transferring knowledge within an organization or network to improve performance and outcomes

Concepts and Methods: Growth and learning mindset, learning structures, rewarding learning, learning by doing, enabling reflection

Resource: The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization by Peter M. Senge


An approach to creating performances in which the plot, characters and dialogue of a game, scene or story are made up in the moment

Concepts and Methods: Yes-and, everything is an offer, “When in doubt, have fun!”

Resource: Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual Paperback by Matt Walsh, Ian Roberts, and Matt Besser

Organization Studies

A body of research about how and why people construct organizational structures, processes, and practices and how these, in turn, shape social relations and create institutions that ultimately influence people

Concepts and Methods: Mechanistic organizations, open systems, contingency theory, dialectics of management

Resource: Images of Organization by Gareth Morgan


The study and practice of how to influence people to buy or do something

Concepts and Methods: Closing, critical advance, call objectives, clear intent, providing continuous value

Resource: The Perfect Close: The Secret to Closing Sales by James M Muir


The scientific study of the human mind and its functions, especially those affecting behavior in a given context

Concepts and Methods: Cognitive biases, cognitive dissonance, projection, transference, family systems, shadow, personality types, thinking styles, learning styles, conflict

Resource: Thinking, Fast and Slow Paperback by Daniel Kahneman


The study of the development, structure, and functioning of human society, from pairs to groups to entire populations

Concepts and Methods: Alienation, deviance, culture, symbolic interactionism, social constructionism, reification, phenomenology, dramaturgical analysis, ethnomethodology

Resource: Sociology by John J. Macionis

Action Learning

A process that involves a small group working on real problems, taking action, and learning as individuals, as a team, and as an organization to increase their collective effectiveness

Concepts and Methods: Air time, timing, structure, focus, learning, action learning cycles

Resource: Optimizing the Power of Action Learning: Solving Problems and Building Leaders in Real Time by Michael J Marquardt

Values/Spiral Dynamics/Adult Development

A collection of theories and models concerned with why we cooperate, collaborate and come to conflict over differences in values and the deeper value systems that form them

Concepts and Methods: Levels of values, memes, integration across levels

Resource: Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership and Change by Don Edward Beck and Christopher Cowan


bottom of page