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Systems thinking: Breaking down silos to deliver positive change

19 June 2020



systems thinking


This article was produced by the Centre for Public Impact.

The Centre for Public Impact has partnered with ANZSOG to host a webinar series – Reimagining Government which focuses on how governments can and should shift to an ‘enablement paradigm’ which sees the best role for government as not to manage or control but to create the conditions that lead to good outcomes for society and citizens.

The second installment in the six-part series, focuses on “thinking in systems”. Thinking in systems is a growing movement of thinkers, academics and practitioners who argue that governments and decision-makers need to move away from linear and siloed approaches to problem-solving, but instead see problems as part of a wider system. It is only by addressing the context and interconnectedness of our world that we can hope to deliver positive change.

Defining systems thinking

The three panelists, CPI executive director Adrian Brown, Luke Craven from the Australian Tax Office, and Professor Deborah Blackman from the University of New South Wales, were hosted in conversation by James Button.

The discussion started with the question “what is systems thinking?” and the panel all offered definitions or approaches on systems thinking. Adrian Brown, from CPI offered an interesting analogy:

“If you are on a desert island and found a mechanical clock. You can take the clock apart and break it down to individual pieces, but know that when you put it back together you’ll be able to tell the time,” he said.

“Now imagine you’re on the same desert island and you see a cat. If you take the cat apart you won’t be able to put it back together to know that it purrs. All the bits of the cat work together.”

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Professor Blackman suggested that systems thinking looks at the whole, and not just one piece of the puzzle.

“If you wish to get more people into work from unemployment support, rather than just looking at their lack of a job as the problem to solve, all sorts of other factors may be playing a part, like poor housing, lack of skills, language barriers,” she said.

“To fix unemployment you need to look at a person’s whole lived experience.”
Luke Craven from the Australian Tax Office offered a slightly different frame in that systems thinking isn’t a binary choice – it’s not systems thinking or nothing. We often need to isolate problems from the wider whole to fix them, but equally need to work in a wider whole to fix the single problem.

Is systems thinking gaining traction as an idea?

The panel all suggested that systems thinking has been gaining support, but so far, there have been few national level examples of it being put clearly into practice. The successful examples so far have been isolated, and mainly at the sub-national level, and it’s perhaps fair to suggest that the real innovators and risk-takers have been at local level.

Adrian Brown gave examples from Australia (for example the Latrobe Valley Authority) and in the approach to government taken by the Finnish government to societal issues, which is based more on innovation and experimentation. However one of the paradoxes of systems thinking is that it demands that successful approaches from other systems be examined closely for suitability, not rigidly applied in a different context.

When asked if the take up of systems thinking had been slow, Luke Craven’s response was that this is a yes and no answer. Systems thinking as an approach has been building support and examples are growing from local government level. But, in Luke’s view, systems thinking is hampered by a lack of strong storytelling.

“Systems thinking breaks the mould because it’s more about learning than measuring outcomes and if your framework is measuring outcomes then systems thinking needs a strong narrative to breakthrough,” he said.

He said that scaling up has been a problem. Most examples are local and getting big governments to take that first risk is a challenge.

COVID-19, crises and systems thinking

No discussion would be complete without mentioning how the COVID-19 pandemic might help or hinder the adoption of systems thinking, particularly as the fact COVID-19 is simultaneously a health, political, social and economic crisis, that essentially requires systems-based approaches.

The panel felt that crises often can speed upshifts in thinking, but Adrian Brown also felt that the nature of this crisis meant that it had tapped into many of the problems of existing structures, and shown they were lacking.

So, how do we break through the political agendas and power structures that block change?

Professor Blackman firmly agreed that one of the barriers to change right now is how politics and power structures are set up, and work in practice. Aspiring politicians, ministers, and civil servants all have their own ambitions, and often competing agendas. This means it takes a brave person to challenge the existing paradigm.

She said she had worked with local communities that were shining examples of systems thinking, but only because there were senior figures who were able to keep the changes on the down low and not risk disapproval from above.

At the more senior level, New Zealand is pioneering a new approach that breaks down ministerial silos and forces ministers to sit together on cross-cutting issues such as climate change in a “board of ministers”.

Luke Craven said some kinds of thinking are so entrenched, in how we develop policy, such as payment by results and outcomes measurements that systems thinking proponents would need to develop alternatives before they could deliver real change.

“The electoral cycle is a clear limitation and is fixed. We have to recognise there are limits to systems thinking. The demands of accountability of our elected representatives is another. But we can bit-by-bit demonstrate that this approach is less risky than imagined,” he said.

Adrian Brown said that humility was a crucial aspect of systems thinking itself, and also changing the current paradigm to include more systems thinking.

“We need to recognise that we cannot control everything and fix everything. We need to be humble and bring others into the discussion in order to adopt a systems thinking approach.”

Find out more about the Reimagining Government webinar series, ranging from “reorient to learning”, to “share power” and “lead with humility”. Each webinar allows participants to listen to the panel and discuss the ideas in small groups. If you are interested in being part of this conversation, register here.

Published Date: 19 June 2020