time in the system

time Jun 15, 2023

we’ve been having a wonderful time in our ‘systems practice’ course, and feeling so fortunate to have dana shen join us to integrate mindfulness into our systems practice.  

as we were meeting each week, i was noticing a signal emerging in the sessions, time and my relationship to it, seemed to be challenging me in a few different ways. this signal suggested an opportunity to slow down and engage with time a bit more purposefully. and so that is what we did. taking a side step to explore the many ways time is present in our systems work. we started with a question.


how are you in relationship with time?

with every breath we’re experiencing time. 

but have you paused to think about how you are actually in relationship with time? 

  • do you live mostly in the past, present or future? 
  • how is timing showing up in your life? has something happened at the right time (or the wrong time) recently? 
  • is time a resource you use with intention? 
  • do you budget, plan, spend or steal time? do you try to game time? 
  • is time attached to other concepts for you? (does time equal efficiency to you, or money?) 
  • how do you mark the passage of time? what cycles do you notice over time?
  • how do you value things that have different connections to time? does the age of something impact its value to you? does the idea of time scarcity affect this? 

answers to each of these, shape your mental model of how you see and engage with the world, and the systems we live and work in.  so your relationship to time also informs your systems practice.  as we started to become more conscious of our relationship to time, we turned attention to the many ways we can understand and engage with time in the system. 


linear time

the framing of time that we’re most familiar with is linear time, this perpetual movement of time marching forward. concepts like past, present and future all exist within linear time and the idea that things happen in sequence. in reflecting on the tools and methods in systems practice, it was interesting for me to notice that a lot of our tools tend to privilege current time (examples include:  causal loop diagrams, social network analysis, assumptions testing, iceberg model, rich pictures) and to a lesser extent the connection of now to future time (examples include: scenario planning, critical systems heuristics, three horizons).  but one of my favorite tools i work with is an adapted version of journey mapping from ‘future search’ which invites participants to backcast the from the current system, helping to under cover why the current system looks the way it does.  it’s also incredibly useful for surfacing patterns and trends in the system, because we can explore a longer timescale. 


time as dynamic effects

time can also be used as a tool to surface dynamic effects in the system. instead of thinking about things as static in a system, this lens acknowledges that systems parts and relationships have a dynamic nature and encourages us to consider how variables change over time. we have three useful tools to help us do this.  stock and flow charts recognizes that things in a system are not in a constant state of equilibrium over time. stocks represent accumulations or quantities that change over time, while flows represent the inputs and outputs affecting those stocks. from community-based system dynamics we have behaviour over time graphs which help to explore the behaviour and inter-relationships of select key variables over time in a low-fi manner. and of course, we also have systems dynamic modelling. while requiring considerably more investment in time, data, and resources, this method can model a complex systems' dynamic, as well as test hypotheses about various leverage points and intervention activities. 


time as scale

time as scale refers to the concept of defining a particular unit or duration through which we can understand events or phenomena. it involves intentionally choosing a specific scale or time frame to shape your thinking about a system. 

there are many many ways we can define a time scale, and each will offer a different lens and boundary to the system, which further will lend itself to developing different insights and perspectives on what is occurring in a system. 

for example, in calendar time, we use units like hours, days, months, or years to measure the passage of time. when considering environmental effects, we might choose to use a time scale such as 'cradle to grave' to assess the entire lifespan of a product and its impact on the environment.  as a counter time scale we could bound our system to the time duration of the manufacturing or consumer consumption process. each would lend themselves to different insights about the system and the effects.

in the health field, it’s common to think about a system through the life cycle of an individual, while similarly, ecologists tend to think about the life cycles of animals or insects. yet a different time scale might be to use geological time, or periods or epochs  which would surface far greater and different patterns of human and environmental events, than the time scale of a life cycle. in our systems practice it is important to identify and consider the multiple time scales that can be used to define a system, and to do so consciously. because like any boundary in a system, it will inherently introduce implications for the way we understand the system. 


time as experience

this one might be one of my favourites to sit with. 

our perception of time goes beyond its purely analytical use. for many people a relationship to time  is associated with rushing and a sense of scarcity. this notion of time as an experience allows us to recognise that our choices and attitudes play a role in shaping our relationship with time. by exploring how we engage with time, we can choose to develop a more fulfilling and balanced experience of it.

some of the language we use to refer to time as experience can include ‘kairos’, ‘flow’, ‘presence’ and my favorite, ‘timelessness. in our systems practice we can choose to cultivate a different experience of time, one that embraces a state of flow and timelessness. Where this will most often show up as opportunities is when we are working and being in relationship with others in the system.  so as we change our relationship to time, we can also change our relationship with others in the system.

when we explored time as experience in our session, dana shared some of the buddhist teachings that inform her mindfulness practice.  

“in the buddhist tradition they talk about the 4th time. the past is the 1st time, the present the 2nd time, and the future the 3rd time, the 4th time, is a time beyond time, or time out of time. the timeless doesn't lean on the past and it doesn’t lean on the future, it is an absolute nowness that is unbounded and radically present. the radical present is not something we create. it is always happening, spontaneously. there is an unfolding in the present that is always happening, even when we are missing it and distracted by our thoughts about the past or the future.”     

that is a sense of time i’d like to spend time with :) 


patterns and cycles in time

it was really interesting to notice how recognising patterns and cycles in time in practised in both the First Nations and academic practice of system, but in very different ways. 

in a First Nations approach to systems, there is an invitation to be in relationship with the patterns and cycles of a system such as lunar, seasonal, or ritual cycles.  in this way we can develop a closer relationship with the system and see ourselves as participants rather than separate entities. this invites us to become more integrative and aware of the patterns and cycles present in the system. 

the academic practice of systems often focuses on analysing a system to identify its patterns and cycle in order to understand how to change them.  the patterns and cycles become visible when we explore a system across multiple data inputs in our time scale across linear time.  in this approach we are asking, ‘what do these patterns and cycles tell us about the systems relationships, dynamics and outcomes?’

there is often a tendency to privilege the analytical over the relational in system work, and i invite to you engage more with the relational approach as a part of our opportunity for systems repair. 


non-linear time

the idea of non-linear time is something i am still working to wrap my head around, and in bringing this to session, i sought other voices that could help to unfold and ground this concept and practice.  i share here the words from sarah kianga judge to help explain.

“First Nations people don’t always think about things in timelines with set starting and finishing spots. instead, we think in patterns and cycles using the place and time where we are now as a starting point. this is called non-linear thinking…

the story can be told in any direction and from any time. instead of lines and circles, non-linear thinking can create beautiful webs of all different kinds of connected patterns that reflect the connected patterns found in our lives and ecosystems.

no matter where you start, eventually you will hear the whole story; and where the story starts depends on the perspective and context of the storyteller.”

what i appreciated about this so much was that non-linear storytelling felt like the verbalization of a system in the way that everything is recognized to be connected and in relationship. and as a systems approach, in that we recognize there are multiple perspectives, all of which are true, and taken together help us to see the system as a whole. up until now,  there is a quote i have used often from myron rogers, part of their maxims that says, ‘start anywhere, follow it everywhere’ .  it has always served as such a useful synopsis of my approach to systems work, but with this insight to First Nations storytelling, i have a new reference to acknowledge.  


what is your relationship to time? 

putting this session together was such a creative and valuable experience.  it really helped me to think about all of the ways time is present in our work as system practitioners.  by being more mindful of the way we choose to define, engage with, and see with time, our system practice can only be strengthened. 

i invite you to think about your relationship to time and how time shows up in your systems practice.