the peaks and valleys of systems work: a reflection from our community of practice

capacity building community of practice systems thinking Mar 27, 2023
green mountain peaks with a river valley

back in december, we ran a session within the community of practice, asking folks what they need to support their capacity to do systems thinking and change work. what emerged was a collection of peaks and valleys: the things that enable them to do systems work and the things that get in the way. 

it’s no secret that something special comes from seeing your own experience reflected back in that of someone else. recognising shared challenges and swapping notes on what we’ve found helpful calms our self-doubt and strengthens our resilience for systems work. it is in this spirit of growing together that i wanted to share a collection of these peer-identified valleys and peaks, clustering them together to help you begin to move through overwhelm to ease. 


valley: finding allies

“feeling like the whole concept is an entirely new notion to colleagues”

a common theme for the community of practice was trying to build a case for systems thinking within their organisations and amongst their co-workers. often people felt it was hard knowing who to connect with, while also feeling alone in advocating for a new way of doing things. 

 peak: building with the systems-change community

“mentorship has been a great tool to reflect in my practice and help me to target specific challenges i experience in my everyday work”

our community similarly identified the recurring strength and support they’ve found in connecting with other people. they identified communities of practice (such as this one), peer learning, mentorship and trusted advisors, and coffee catch ups as helpful models of connecting with others. many also identified the growth of local systems networks as helping to build these relationships. as the ideas and language of systems work is working its way into the wider community, it’s becoming easier to find like-valued people to learn from and work with. similarly, the growth of the systems change movement is helping to build momentum, credibility and solidarity amongst practitioners. 


valley: feeling the overwhelm and not knowing where to start 

“i didn't know, what i didn't know (how big the field and practice was)”

too many theories, methods and compendiums of approaches meant that people often felt overwhelmed rather than well-equipped by information. many in our community of practice noted that the learning curve in systems thinking is a steep one, and finding a starting point to learn, or to begin on a particular project was difficult. others remarked that even though they knew the value and benefits of systems work, it was still hard and messy work, and trusting in the process wasn’t always easy. 

peak: shifting to a different mindset

“take time to understand and unpack”

while quiet work can be hard to prioritise and measure, our community of practice noted that the mindset they bring to systems approach has been a source of strength. whether it was getting more comfortable on a journey without a set destination, adopting a continuous learning mindset, nurturing an interest in diverse perspectives and relationships, or cultivating a “systemic intuition”, how people showed up to the work often mattered more than the methods used.


valley: finding traction with your work

“departments working in silos: hard to find the people i need to create the project”

unlike other methodologies, systems work is highly adaptive to each context, and rarely progresses in a predictable or linear way. this shift to a new way of thinking and working is a big leap for teams, and finding traction amongst peers can be difficult for practitioners embedded in large organisations (like government or not-for-profits). along with the challenge of trying to champion a new way of working, our community of practice also noted that they were simultaneously trying to break down silos in their workplaces, build momentum and fit within conventional reporting and governance protocols. 

peak: nurturing internal work

“importance of culture in terms of openness to systems thinking and approaches”

systems work is hard, and can be harder still if the foundations aren’t set well in a team or organisation. often, culture change is a necessary precursor, or part of systems work. our community of practice identified a range of ways they’ve invited teams and non-designers to join them on their journey. these included breaking the theory or methodologies down into bite-sized chunks and simple steps, pointing out where their co-workers are already doing systems work and embracing systems-thinking behaviours (perhaps, just under a different label) and creating opportunities for people to learn through show and tell sessions.  

valley: showing success

“systems evaluation - how do you evaluate the efficacy or improvement of a system”

amongst our community of practice, this was something that came up at all stages of the systems work journey. people found it difficult to demonstrate the value of systems work, to build interest and buy-in for using it in their organisation. similarly, people found it difficult to communicate success while their own journey was underway, along with capturing and celebrating change at the end of a project, in ways that met the needs of funders or stakeholders.

peak: looking for wins in different shapes and sizes

“show don't tell... live it, shared experience, invite in”

our community of practice noted that success comes in many different flavours! just as reframing your thinking is a part of doing systems work, the same holds true for evaluating and showcasing systems work. our community of practice that they’d seen shifts in their teams when people felt or experienced systems approaches for themselves. by creating opportunities for others to learn about and partake in systems work, they saw their co-workers not only become more open and engaged with it, but even went on to become champions of it themselves. others in the community of practice also noted that even when confined to traditional reporting structures, they’d been able to demonstrate more movement and change by using systemic insights and principles, compared to previous traditional efforts. 


valley: lacking space and time to experiment

“time and space - for me, to spending time reading, thinking understanding, but also in conversations and capacity building with others”

systems work often requires a particular pace that enables people to gather, learn, explore and build knowledge together. unfortunately, time shortage is something we all commonly battle, and so taking or making the time for systems approaches can be difficult. in particular, our community of practice noted that having space in the diary to actually document things like causal loops, jump between the individual and structural and back again, and reflect on their own place and role within a system was a constant challenge.

peak: creating your own space and community

“creating safe spaces for new ideas and learning”

our community of practice yet again proved to have a wealth of ideas and experience with this challenge. some noted that they were lucky to have the right roles and teams that gave them the time, space and agency needed to experiment.  meanwhile others made their own communities by setting up their own testing spaces, gathering colleagues together to test different design and systems tools. for many people, starting small and getting comfortable with small progressive steps took away some of the pressure to do systems work perfectly, on a first attempt, at scale. 

we hope these peaks and valleys resonate with your work and your practice, and bring you some comfort in knowing you’re not alone. these insights align with things we’ve heard over many years of doing systems work, and are always difficult things to grapple with. we hope to bring more attention to these valleys and peaks in 2023 in the community of practice, in new resources we’re developing, and in our writing. if you want to stay in the loop, you can join our mailing list here, or learn more about our community of practice here