Five Horizons of Systems Mastery

What does it take to become a rounded systems practitioner?

Photo: Philippe Vandenbroeck

Systems practice

In common parlance ‘systems thinking’ is understood as ‘thinking in systems’ (as the title of Donella Meadows’ posthumously published, widely read book suggests). It relies on systems concepts — such as stocks, flows, feedback loops, network and hierarchy — to structure the problem solving process in relation to particular design challenges.

‘Systems practice’ goes beyond that. It is ‘systems thinking and doing’, or ‘system praxis’. The thinking cannot be dissociated from intervening in the messy world around us. Systems practice is ‘learning for action’ (to borrow the title from another important book in the systems literature) in relation to situations that are seen as problematic and asking for improvement.

How does one become a systems practitioner? Below I am offering a hypothesis that mirrors my own path of professional and personal development. It is structured as a journey that moves sequentially across five horizons. Each horizon is meant to be understood as a stage of development.

I have labeled the five horizons as follows:

Horizon 1: Tools

Horizon 2: Method

Horizon 3: Learning

Horizon 4: Ethos

Horizon 5: Epistemology

For each horizon I briefly describe the capabilities required to engage in systems practice at that level. I make a brief note about how this was reflected in my personal journey as systems practitioner. And I provide a thumbnail sketch of a practice example that connects to the spirit of this particular horizon. The practice examples all relate to one particular real-world setting in which I and my colleagues at shiftN have worked over a number of years.

The five horizons

Horizon 1: Tools

It is not unusual to become acquainted with systems concepts, and to get a first taste for systems practice, through the use of distinct, well-codified frameworks and tools. The scope of a systems practice toolbox extends beyond various types of system maps and simulation models and may include elements from many other disciplines, such as design thinking, network science, business strategy and ecology.

Capabilities: mastery at Horizon 1 manifests itself in the ability to apply a range of frameworks and tools with a systems imprint to support organisational and strategic problem solving.

Personal journey: early in my career I started to use system dynamics models, particularly to illuminate strategic issues related to commodity-based industries. These models were designed to deepen and widen the scope of the ‘strategic conversation’, an important guiding principle in all the systems work I have done.

Practice example: we relied on an influence diagram to synthesize insights about the organisational dynamics and dilemmas in the HQ of a membership organisation. The map provided a coherent whole systems picture that reflected a wide range of concerns voiced by different stakeholders.

Horizon 2: Method

Methods are structured approaches that reflect systems principles and encompass a range of tools. They are intellectual Swiss Army knives that can be deployed to pursue different purposes in different contexts.

Capabilities: mastery at horizon 2 manifests itself in the ability to purposively and context-sensitively combine systems oriented tools into multi-faceted, phased and time-bound interventions with the aim to improve situations perceived as problematic.

Personal journey: futures methodologies such as scenario planning were my entry point into the world of systems practice. Later I became familiar with approaches such as Soft Systems Methodology, which became the foundation of my practice. The basic principle espoused by SSM is that only a process of social learning can help us to come to grips with complexity.

Practice example: we relied on a systemic design approach to develop a member-driven innovation agenda. The scope of the agenda reflected important latent needs of the platform’s membership base and turned out to be an important source of strategic insights.

Horizon 3: Learning

I see this horizon as the core of systems practice. It is where we engage in sustained efforts to embrace the unruliness of wicked problems. Uncertainty, bounded rationality (we can’t know everything) and multiple perspectives (we don’t see challenges in the same way) are inextricably linked to these longer term learning processes.

Capabilities: mastery at Horizon 3 manifests itself in the ability to foster an environment that is conducive to increasing a social system’s capacity for learning and action. This inevitably requires us “to confront multiple, conflicting perspectives, to work in the interpersonal ‘here-and-now’, to use ourselves as an informational instrument within the learning situation.” (Donald Schon).

Personal journey: I have had the privilege to support clients in long-term organisational and strategic learning processes, discovering new challenges and revisiting old ones along the way. Some of these relationships stretch over more than a decade. Another context of long-term learning has been offered by entrepreneurial or policy-driven attempts to shift complex socio-technical systems to a more sustainable equilibrium within the wider methodological fold of transition governance. A third arena of systems learning is the shiftN team, an organisational setting in which we try to ‘walk our talk’ as systems practitioners, and which offers a constant invitation to reinvent ourselves.

Practice example: we supported the platform organisation to reframe their strategy from ‘defending sectoral interests’ to ‘supporting a cross-sectoral alliance to turn fragilised minorities into a de facto majority that contributes to long-term societal viability.’ This strategic inflection is the result of ten years of evolving strategic thinking and pushes the organisation into a different fitness landscape. The organisation is now ready to explore this new opportunity space in service to its member base.

Horizon 4: Ethos

Systems practice comes with the requirement to constantly question ourselves in relation to the ethics and the risk of failure associated to complex learning processes. It is the sort of learning that is bound to challenge our sense of identity.

Capabilities: mastery at Horizon 4 manifests itself in an individual ethos or an organisational culture characterised by suspension of judgment, humility, empathy and an ability to reflexively question identity when engaging in complex and uncertain learning processes.

Personal journey: high-risk episodes and near-misses in workshop settings confronted me early on with and the imperative to constantly deepen craft and ethos. The mentorship of more experienced practitioners has been instrumental in guiding me along that path. Today I see progress along this horizon as vital in continuing my ability to contribute to the many pressing societal challenges that are facing us.

Practice example: we supported the platform organisation to develop a culture of normative professionalisation with staff members being fluent and open in negotiating tensions between personal goals, professional standards and acute needs of individuals in their member organisations.

Horizon 5: Epistemology

Systems practice is rooted into a systems worldview or ‘epistemology’ that revolves around the experience of interdependence, the power of love and the intelligence of life. Gregory Bateson: “The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and how people think.”

Capabilities: mastery at Horizon 5 manifests itself in an ability to intuit and/or articulate the pattern that connects us, mortal human beings living in language, with everything else under the sun, and to model that love and wisdom in personal behaviour.

Personal journey: these are issues I am lovingly wrestling with on a daily basis. They inform my whole outlook on life. And inevitably this is a never-ending journey. Inspiration comes from the professional practice, reading widely in systems literature and philosophy, from spiritual practice and exchanging with gifted practitioners, both young and mature.

Practice example: we invited our client, a key actor in the healthcare system, to deeply reflect on the notion of ‘care’ and to explore its foundational meanings through the work of thinkers such as Annemarie Mol, Aaron Antonovsky and Hans-Georg Gadamer.

From thinking to tinkering to being

I experience the overall journey to rounded systems mastery as a movement from ‘systems thinking’ (horizon 1 and 2) to ‘systems tinkering’ (horizon 2 and 3), to ‘systems being’ (horizons 4 and 5).

Obviously, the metaphor of the five horizons of systems mastery has its limitations. The suggested linearity of the journey should not be seen as a straight-jacket. There are people who have strong innate abilities as systems practitioners. They may start their journey at a more distant place (so to speak) and grow by expanding their reach into more proximate horizons.

There is another way to consider the five horizons: as a nested hierarchy whereby higher level horizons provide meaning and context to lower level horizons. The epistemology then provides a fold for the personal and organisational ethos, which in turn offers context and guidance for the real-world practice of systems learning based on whatever methodologies and tools one feels attracted to.

One thing is clear, however: to grow as a systems practitioner is a challenge for a lifetime.

Reflections on a draft by fellow systems practitioner Houda A. Khayame are gratefully acknowledged.

Facilitator @ shiftN ⎹ Post-disciplinary researcher @ Newrope, ETH Zürich ⎹ How to create spaces were life is able to unfold, and is experienced as life?