Building Capacity in Systems Thinking: Want More Amplification? Don’t Call it Training

In our conservation organization we work in an environment which is opportunity rich and time poor. Therefore, one of our primary goals as the learning team is to help people to work and take decisions with powerful systems insights so that their interventions have the highest impact, and take the least amount of effort (including resources, time and money).

So among other things we do systems thinking training. A neat one- and two-day workshop that gives participants a chance to learn some specialised vocabulary, to practice a couple of useful systems diagramming tools, and to look for archetypes (repeating patterns). Our in-house training is popular with mostly young professionals who are interested to learn this approach and to use it in their work. With this kind of training we get people to adopt systems thinking one person at a time. In our younger colleagues, turnover is relatively high and yet we are happy to contribute to building overall capacity in our larger sustainability community.

Of course, this community is vast. Even our institution is enormous – both at Headquarters and in the field. With this approach it will take us years to get to everyone – IF we could even get everyone to attend. Higher level management staff do not sign up for this kind of training. Often they don’t feel they have time for professional development, and may not see from the description the direct applicability of this approach in their immediate work. However, if we could get these people involved, and when they incorporate this in their teams and programmes, the tools and thinking goes much further.

So we decided to not focus our whole strategy for building capacity in systems thinking on training. We have begun instead to incorporate the use of systems thinking tools for discussion and analysis in strategic planning workshops, which is precisely where the high level people need to be. We get more and more invitations to help design and facilitate visioning or planning workshops, the perfect environments for the application of systems thinking tools. The side benefit is that the participant group is very different than that of a training course. In fact, when an invitation comes through to do planning, visioning, and recommendations for your own organization or a partner, everyone works to get the highest level people possible, who then, if they like the process and outputs, can take them further for you – with direct implications for their teams, organizations and projects.

We realised this most strongly today at the end of a visioning workshop that we have been conducting in our organization’s Meso-America region with a staff team and partners. We spent 2.5 days with a set of iterative exercises that aim to identify the goals of water maangement in the region, to look at some existing trends in the past and possible future trends, to understand the inter-relationships in the existing system, to identify intervention points that help them to reach their goals of radical change, and finally to make concrete recommendations for the water management community in general, and our organization in particular, for strategic future work. In order to do this, we were obliged to help people first to understand and use the tools (Goals creation, Behaviour Over Time Graphs, and Causal Loop Diagrams), to practice them, to physically experience them with some interactive systems games, and to then use them to do their work together.

At the end of our workshop today, numerous people – heads of projects and programmes – asked us for our slides, and more information on the methodology, which we will be delighted of course to provide. They wish to use it in their project teams, to use it to diagram their systems and for communication with partners on what they are doing. After this visioning workshop, these high level people take with them a set of systems tools that they used for real-life decision-making and as a result of their experience using them can see the utility and applicability for themselves (and not second hand from a junior staff member who brought them back from a training course – although they should!)

We will never stop training our young colleauges; that is the future and they are well on their way to becoming the leaders of tomorrow. In parallel, however, we will continue to quietly embed these tools, with a tiny invisible training component and real life applications, into these strategic visioning discussions with high level people. The systems message will go much further and deeper through these proponents; the tools will travel faster (exponentially) out of our hands and through those of the particulants as they simultaneously share their learning; and overall be less financially resource intensive for us because we don’t need to finance the transfer ourselves. In the end, people will know and use the tools, they will share their learning in their own languages and contexts, and no one will ever need to refer to it as training. That is my systems insight for today!

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