Seeking Systemic Transformation?

Our theory of how Social System Mapping supports systemic transformation.

Underlying Concepts

"Transformation is not a project. It is multi-dimensional, multi-faceted, and multilevel, cutting across national borders and intervention silos, across sectors and specialized interests, connecting local and global, and sustaining across time. A theory of transformation incorporates and integrates multiple theories of change operating at many levels that, knitted together, explain how major systems transformation occurs."

Michael Quinn Patton, Blue Marble Evaluation

Systemic transformation emerges through networks.

"Catalyze, connect, track, map, and evaluate networks and initiatives worldwide to generate critical mass tipping points toward global transformation."

Michael Quinn Patton, Blue Marble Evaluation

Networks Don't Function Like Organizations

Networks Are Self-Organizing Systems


Networks function differently than organizations because they are inherently complex and not amenable to simple-system management assumptions.

The greater capacity there is for adaptive action among a network's members, the greater liklihood it has to generate a Complex Adaptive System (CAS) or Self-Organizing system.

The more a self-organizing a network becomes, the more impact it can have on transforming systems.

When the conditions are right, transformation happens very fast. And conversely, when conditions are wrong, we can waste an abundance of time, energy and resources while accomplishing very little.

And sometimes, the tensions within a system are so great that dramatic change is inevitable - when that happens, understanding dynamical change in systems is crucial to being able to respond effectively.

Knowing how to generate the conditions for positive transformation, and knowing how to read and respond to systemic dynamics are key skills for anyone seeking to transform any system. Skills that need to be dispersed and practiced constantly throughout transformation networks, not just held in the minds of a few experts and key leaders.

Intentional networks themselves teach us that if we're looking for systemic transformation, we can't just change the system goal (i.e. end world hunger, end racism, seriously address climate change, etc. . .) we have to update our understanding of systems. They teach us, through simple trial and error if nothing more, that we need to let go of the old top-down, linear-planning, simple-system assumptions about change. We need to stop attacking problems as if the solutions were simple and within the control of any one source of power.

So network practice itself is a process of learning about systems. We believe that Social Social Mapping is a perfect tool to enhance and amplify that learning.

"The shared idea in the minds of society, the great big unstated assumptions — unstated because unnecessary to state; everyone already knows them — constitute that society’s paradigm, or deepest set of beliefs about how the world works. There is a difference between nouns and verbs. Money measures something real and has real meaning (therefore people who are paid less are literally worth less). Growth is good. Nature is a stock of resources to be converted to human purposes. Evolution stopped with the emergence of Homo sapiens. One can “own” land. Those are just a few of the paradigmatic assumptions of our current culture, all of which have utterly dumfounded other cultures, who thought them not the least bit obvious.

Paradigms are the sources of systems. From them, from shared social agreements about the nature of reality, come system goals and information flows, feedbacks, stocks, flows and everything else about systems."

Donella Meadows, The Donalla Meadows Project: Academy for Systems Change

"Paradigms are the sources of systems"

image of Donella Meadows Leverage Points

The greatest power to transform a system lies in transforming the paradigm that created it

System Conditions Determine What's Possible

Managing in simple systems is profoundly different than managing in complex adaptive systems.

Yet, our modern dominant western cultural norms tend to treat all systems as if they were simple systems - hence our current troubles. And since we're generally collectively been taught to only see simple systems, understanding how to manage in a complex adaptive system is IN ITSELF a significant paradigm shift.

The Stacy Matrix maps system dynamics, indicates what kinds of practices are possible under different contexts, what conditions are needful, and the kinds of actions to take in each context. This graphic is also informed by Dave Snowden's Cynefin framework and the Human Systems Dynamics Landscape Diagram.

Since networks are self-organizing complex adaptive systems, this particular shift towards competence and literacy with complex adaptive systems is a necessary paradigm shift for networks to be successful.

Paradigms hide below the surface

Transformation requires surfacing our deepest paradigms, unlearning old ways and learning new ways.

If paradigms hide below our conscious thought, how do we know if they're shifting?

By reflecting on the patterns they create over time.

Becoming Sensitized Is Critical

In 'Blue Marble Evaluation' Michael Quinn Patton writes about transformation as a sensitizing concept.

We riff off the distinction between definitive and sensitizing concepts and propose that a map can be understood as a sensitizing tool. As such, it's important to be cognizant of what a tool is sensitizing us to.

If and how a Social System Map helps to generate direct measurable outcomes will depend on the context, how it's designed and how it's used. But regardless of context, design and use - we believe Social System Mapping gives a ". . .general reference. . ." and suggests ". . .directions along which to look", that help sensitize us to:

  • Systems thinking, pattern literacy and complexity.
  • Inter-dependance, inter-subjectivity and complex reciprocity.
  • The assets, strengths and agency inherent in any network.
  • Liberation and equity.
  • The conditions of self-organizing in human systems.

In other words, we believe Social System Mapping has the potential to fundamentally impact paradigms, in addition to whatever other systemic leverage points it helps to shift.

"Complexity theory and systems thinking inform and permeate transformative theory."

~Michael Quinn Patton

Systems Thinking Itself Is A Powerful Paradigm Shift

The fields of quantum & complexity sciences, bio-mimicry and others are revealing a reality that is far more in alignment with older and indigeneous ways of knowing and that undermine the views of reality held by the last several hundred years of western reductionist scientific thought.

Learning about, understanding, and entering into this old/new reality in and of itself IS a paradigm shift.

Systems Thinking requires shifting our attention.

Fritjof Capra (no relation to Christine) and Pier Luigi Luisi say in 'The Systems View of Life' that systems's thinking requires the following shifts of perspective: 

  • From the parts to the whole
  • From objects to relationships
  • From measuring to mapping
  • From quantities to qualities
  • From structures to processes
  • From objective to epistemic science
  • From Cartesian certainty to approximate knowledge
  • And it's inherently multidisciplinary.

These shifts of attention have informed the development of Social System Mapping - we take them as principles that guide the practice. And in turn, Social System Mapping reflects back these attention shifts, creating a visual reinforcing feedback loop to amplify and accelerate this needed attention shift.

Transformation networks depend upon different perspectives

The parable of the six blind men (or six blindfolded observers) and the elephant illustrates why transformation is a networked process, not a single-actor, single-goal process.

It takes a network and the combined awareness of all the differently-involved perspectives to see the system clearly enough to have a generative impact on it.

Making collective visualizations of different perspectives can generate productive mental-model-shifting discussions.

Systems thinking, complexity and  networks are all about the relationships

"When designing an intervention or initiative, look at the interactions, interdependencies, and interconnections across levels (micro, meso, macro). Take into account how people, information, and resources flow from local to global, and global to local."

We're so used to attending to the entities while overlooking the invisible connections among them that it helps to frequently be exposed to visualizations that explicitly call out connections.

"Keep it Simple Stupid" = the KISS of death

The chronic exhortation by well-intentioned advice-givers to keep things simple undermines our ability to manage in complexity. Arbitrary and superficial simplifying of complex topics robs us of our chance to practice pattern-spotting and adaptive acting.

We propose that premature simplification also infantalizes people. People working in transformation don't need (or want) to be spoon-fed the dumbed-down snippets of complex realities that people in power believe is all they're capable of swallowing.

What they need is a) non-interference as they express themselves and act according to the complexities they're inherently already aware of, and b) frameworks and tools that help them sense-make and pattern-spot in dialog with those who see different complexities.

In a rapidly-changing world, we all benefit by developing the system-seeing skills Eric Berlow describes in the video above.  

“I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

~Oliver Wendell Holmes

Premature simplicity also prematurely shuts down our understanding and creativity. Joe Hseuh's video below explains why it's important to go THROUGH the overwhelm and complexity to get to the simplicity on the other side.

"Keep it Simple Stupid" = the KISS of death

UNLESS it comes AFTER moving through COMPLEXITY

"People often find transformation and large-systems- change work overwhelming. But it can be broken down into three manageable steps.

First, it is vital to really see the system undergoing transformation, often by mapping it. Seeing and mapping can be supported by technical means, such as data visualization, and more qualitative and soft techniques that bring stakeholders together.

The next step is to connect those actors, many of whom may have different strategies and interests, into a powerful system that can identify radical actions and experiments to achieve their goal.

The third step involves implementation of these actions - although the three steps are cyclical and interact."   Waddock et al

We believe that system change, pattern-spotting, and collective sense-making can be supported, amplified and accelerated with the use of good system-seeing visualizations. They enable us to see details within a larger context. And the visual medium has a more direct impact on cognition than words. If a picture paints a thousand words, we should use more pictures for understanding complex things.

Context Is Everything

We also believe that all the systems thinking, pattern-spotting, and adaptive action learning needed for transformation can happen faster & more impact-fully within the contexts that people are already working in. Applied learning in personally relevant contexts surpasses de-contextualized abstractions every time.

Social System Mapping in transformation networks serves the triple purpose of learning systems thinking, etc. while actively shifting paradigms and experimenting with actual interventions.