Finding New Ways to “See Systems”

The imperative to work for change at a deeper more systemic level is arising in many areas, such as addressing the systemic roots of racial inequalities, or making large scale system transitions away from fossil fuels. Many recognize that we need to get beyond quick fixes and shift deeply ingrained patterns if we are to create a future different than the past.Yet, many of traditional ways we approach change, and how social change work is funded and organized, focus on breaking things down into discrete manageable parts and projects that can be funded in a grant cycle. We busy ourselves working on projects within the bounds of what seems possible, while knowing deep down that the challenges our communities and the earth face call for a deeper level of transformative change – a change of larger systems.

To work effectively at the scale of changing systems, we need to develop new capacities, individually and collectively:Forest sun

  • We need ways to give voice to and understand the perspective of all parts of a system/community…and how they interrelate and change over time. We need places where we can see these multiple dimensions and perspectives and have conversations that engage across our differences to generate new shared understanding and possibilities.
  • We need to appreciate how the history of a system, community, or place has affected the current situation and relationships, such as the impact of historical inequities, racism, and traumatic events that may still be playing out. We need safe spaces to explore and acknowledge these dynamics, both to create the trust to work together and to generate the commitment and momentum to fundamentally shift these patterns.
  • We need ways to generate images and experiences of what the system or a community looks like when belonging, balance and harmonious order are restored. We need ways to imagine alternatives to a dysfunctional system are and how we might transition, e.g., to transition to economy with equity of opportunity, transition to a workplace culture of participation and collaboration.
  • When we make a change in one part of a system, it affects many other parts. Beneficial feedback loops or unintended consequences are often generated. We need ways to collectively anticipate these dynamics and, as we take action, to recognize the effects of the changes we implement so we can learn and adapt.

Expanding Our Tools
Traditional management tools such as strategic planning are oriented toward the discrete and measurable. Political processes also tend to fragment and narrow our understanding and sense of options to being for or against. System mapping is increasingly gaining interest in those working on social change, as this example from Vermont Farm to School illustrates. This can be a powerful process; however, it has shortcomings as well, in that it is expensive and the maps can be hard to understand for those who were not part of the process.

I have been curious to explore and experiment with tools and methods for helping groups understand systems in ways that meet the needs mentioned above. One technique I have been intrigued by is a process called “systemic constellation,” which was originally used to address dynamics in families. This is a group process tool that can enable participants in a system or a community to understand and experience the dynamics of a system in a remarkably short time. A facilitator works with a person who knows the system and they select people to stand as representatives of the various roles in a system or community. The person who knows the system orients them in the space the way they see them relating in the current system. The people in the representing roles can sense dynamics in the system and all the participants can “see the system” in a more whole way.

Dynamics that are hidden can become visible. This constellation technique can be used to explore historical issues, a community has the opportunity to witness, name and acknowledge a traumatic event or unacknowledged injury/injustice. This alone can be remarkably powerful to shift a system, often freeing up a situation that feels stuck or bringing a new sense of possibilities.

Systemic constellation can be used to illustrate how past history, in some cases going back generations, has affected the current situation. It can help a group explore the relationships among parts of a system or a community, seeing multiple perspectives and understanding unhealthy dynamics, as well as discovering what healthy balanced relationships in the system will be. Participants can also experiment and explore various ways the system could shift or be re-organized.

I think there is great potential to combine this process with the valuable set of tools and methods from the Art of Hosting, which offer a range of participatory processes to support a group in having conversations about things that matter. People can connect in new ways, reflect, listen to each other, and generate a sense of collective wisdom. These processes together provide the ongoing means to navigate within complex, continually changing systems and contexts.

When a community or group generates a deeper understanding, healing, and shared trust through this experience, the paths to create healthy communities and systems naturally emerge. Innovative ideas and possibilities can have a greater ease of implementation when they come out of this alignment versus only one part of the system imposing them on another and encountering resistance.

4 thoughts on “Finding New Ways to “See Systems”

  1. Thanks Beth, as you know I truly resonate to this. And look forward to opportunities in the near future to gather with others around this – and collectively tend to and even amplify this new potential.

  2. Hi Beth! Good to “see” you again… I “met” you most recently on the Dialogue & Deliberation Climate Action Network call, and then discovered that you are part of the Collective Healing Spaces! I’ve been taking part in an intensive Systemic Constellations training for the last year… it’s powerful work, and good to see it spreading… I look forward to sharing your great blog post with others!

    1. Thanks, Rosa! Agree, systemic constellation is such powerful work and many people are not aware of it (yet.) I see many applications for how it can be used for those doing social/environmental change work.

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