Practical systems thinking for designers

Since joining Lloyds Banking Group I’ve been really fortunate to work alongside a brilliant systems thinking team, along the way learning stuff that now informs every conversation I have. I’ve found it incredibly useful as a designer and so wanted to share three things:

Stop blaming people

The performance of anyone is governed largely by the system that he works in, the responsibility of management.— W. Edwards Demming

Above all, systems thinking has given me tools and language to express what I’ve always known intuitively as empathy. Person X is not necessarily a bad person for blocking my project, and Person Y is not a dinosaur for not seeing my perspective, they are simply the product of their environment. As a designer the ability to see the world from another perspective is critical, it’s what separates us from artists. With systems thinking, empathy is given weight and clarity.

Studying the system within the bank, it quickly becomes clear that we’re like any other large organisation, a mess of competing dynamics. By observing which dynamics drive which behaviours, you create an objective view on what levers are available to create what change is desired. More often that not these levers are huge, not easily shifted and are known to the organisation. But critically, they’re not the people.

As a designer, these levers are powerful weapons of mass transformation. They get to the heart of your chosen problem by taking you through whatever organisational layers necessary. They’re also inoffensive and free of opinion. Yes they may be challenging, but they’re evidence based and positioning them as such takes the heat out of the design conversation. Moving from opinion to evidence is one of the biggest lessons I’ve had in the last year.

Problems are not the problem; coping is the problem*

*thanks Virginia Satir

The second helpful shift in my thinking came from hours of shadowing front-line colleagues across the bank, something mandated by the systems thinkers’ strict devotion to study.

Whether in call centres or in branch, it became clear how adept colleagues have become in coping with the systems in which they operate. Whether this is switching between a myriad of software applications to complete a simple task, or the creation of ingenious paper-based solutions to queue management, it’s always fascinating to see how good we as humans are at making do.

And it’s this ‘making do’ that provides so much fertile ground for designers. Every workaround is an indication that the system is failing, and by going back to what the customer wanted to do in the first place, you can understand which workarounds to remove entirely and which to rethink.

Causal loop diagrams FTW

The above two learnings are fairly broad, so i’ll finish with something super specific. Systems thinking is built on study and observation and rightly so, otherwise you’re just another wally with an opinion. However, I wanted to find a systems thinking approach that could be used to create shared understanding of a given system within a workshop scenario. This is where I got into causal loop diagrams.

Much like a mindmap or affinity diagram, CLDs are big visual representations of ‘stuff’, which can be created in groups to flush out unknowns and align understanding. Unlike mindmaps however, they have some neat notational quirks that introduce causation and loops, meaning that you can create a more sophisticated understanding and flush out the kind of levers I touched on above.

I’m still iterating my approach to CLDs but so far I’ve seen real effectivness from the technique within the bank and outside. I’ve written up a detailed walkthrough here — https://medium.com/@rossbreadmore/innovation-through-systems-thinking-f51a8a2d8767

As a service designer and wannabe systems thinker, I’m conscious of how much waffle there is on both topics, and so I’ll stop now. Interested in how we move the conversation on and share more practical examples of how we apply techniques and methodology, so let me know if you’re interested in talking more.

Mum asked for a baby, dad asked for a transformer - I was the compromise. Chief product officer at 4G Capital.