My Journey of Systems Thinking – Part VI

I was back in the classroom, this week, interacting with bright students at Indian School of Development Management, Noida. These students challenged me to my core. Their sharp questions would often test my own depths – related to my knowledge of systems thinking, my understanding of how real world systems operate, my experience of working with communities and policy makers. It is these students who help me go deeper and explore my previously unexplored depths of knowledge and some glimpses of wisdom which is hidden deep within (this is true for all of us). It is a matter of time before some one helps us unearth it.

After many examples on how systems thinking is used, by making causal loops, and also by going through the systems thinking process, I finally decided to put up two slides which say what Systems Thinking is and what it is Not. These are my own, so I encouraged the students to add/modify them depending on their understanding and reading of the literature.

I am pasting these below:

What Systems Thinking is

–Method of Thinking

–Method to perform systemic diagnoses

–Engagement tool useful for communication

–Learning tool useful for testing assumptions

–Identifying impact pathways and

–Reasons that give rise to non linearity of system’s behavior

–Potential tool to generate insights and foresights

What Systems Thinking is NOT

–to predict future reality

–to control reality

–to identify who is to be blamed

–to be used in isolation

–to solve all problems at once

–to prove superiority

–to win arguments for the sake of just winning

Before the closing of our 16 hours of engagement, I requested students to keep these points in mind when they go out to interact with the real world complexities and the multiple stakeholders who would present their perspectives which would give them some information about why things are happening the way it is happening, but it would never be enough for them to understand reality in totallity.

In the next post I would elaborate on these points more to explain why I put them there. Stay Tuned!

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My Journey of Systems Thinking – Part IV

Many people have been asking me how to use systems thinking, how to make models, what are the steps that I follow, how does the development process unfold? To be honest, there is not set template that one can follow and reach the end. As John Sterman says, “It is inherently a creative process.” But there are steps which can guide the model building process. Sterman in his book, Business Dynamics, mentions these steps in detail and I recommend everyone interested to go through them. I myself has used them to write proposals on research using systems thinking and modeling. But over time I realized that applying them required some degree of adaptation of these steps. Since in India the degree of complexity is relatively more as compared to other developed countries where data is available and reliable under most circumstances, we need to be very creative while trying to understand complex systems using systems thinking. To give an example, while working in rural areas one realizes how poor is the data availability even for critical resources such as ground water. I remember once on a water wind mill assessment trip we were struggling to identify water hand pumps which are dry and which are still pumping water, what is their depth, when they were installed etc. People in villages had some vague idea about their date or year of installation, depth etc. But all that was not good enough for us to take a call on whether to implement a water windmill or not. The only parameters for which data was available and reliable (to an extent) was the meteorological conditions i.e. the wind speed, direction, precipitation etc. That too because WOTR had Automated Weather Stations installed there. So this goes to show that while working in India data availability and reliability is a big constraint. The second constraint is the information and knowledge available to understand the local dynamics. Another example being, people in villages find it very difficult to estimate their household numbers be it water, finance, energy or livestock productivity. For eg. their income and expenses figures rarely tally. Giving them the benefit of doubt that they take short term loans, receive some money through family, friends etc. even then all these numbers would often not add up. I have had a first hand experience on this issue too. So modeling social, ecological and economic systems in informal setting in India is a hard, hard work. Lot of assumptions and (educated) guesstimates have to be done to complete any sort of modeling process.

All this relates to how one then applies systems thinking and modeling in dynamically complex situations and systems in India? Does John’s modeling process and steps help our cause? In my opinion they do, albeit to a limited extent. One needs to creatively adapt them and use his/her sensing to move ahead. In my experience serendipity also plays an important role. Almost every time I have been badly stuck in some of the most challenging modeling projects and then I have found a way out either by someone willfully joining the work or through some support. All of it being not part of original plan.

So after doing some modeling work in very un-ordered settings I have adapted John’s modeling steps and have penned them down.  The pre requirements before these steps are that the problem has been identified, modelers have familiarized themselves with it and proper scoping exercise has been done with the end user and experts.  The modeling steps then are:

  1. Define purpose of the model and read about the issue or system of interest
  2. List down sectors, sub systems and determine model boundary
  3. Create Dynamic Hypothesis (DH)
  4. Develop questions based on DH
  5. Show DH to community (end user) and experts
  6. Review the questions and DH after step 5
  7. Collect information and data using questions developed in step 6
  8. Develop initial versions of simulation model
  9. Review DH based on simulation model
  10. Show revised DH to community (end users) and experts
  11. Show initial simulation results to community (end users) and experts
  12. (Incorporate suggestions) Revise the model, its boundaries and develop questions to fill in information and data gaps
  13. Collect data and information to fill the gaps
  14. Develop progressive versions of model (eg. v2, 3…… v17….  and repeat step 13
  15. Perform model calibration, sensitivity runs, extreme conditions test and finalize the model (sometimes back-casting also helps in model evaluation)
  16. Share the results with community for mobilization and aiding action
  17. Make model readable and fit for publication and dissemination
  18. Get the model reviewed by an expert and incorporate suggestions
  19. Publish the model and results
  20. Plan for next phase and how to go deeper into the issue to initiate change process, then start from Step 12 or any other appropriate step as suited

The most important thing to remember is to celebrate learning at each step and document the learning process. You would often be surprised that the learning process is an equally important and influential outcome of the modeling process as much as the end simulation results are.

My Journey of Systems Thinking – Part II

For many years people have asked me how is systems thinking different and what is so unique about it. What is the advantage of using it over other methods and techniques? To be honest, I did not had a short and convincing answer back then. It would take me 15 mins of talking to convey what I wanted to say and that too was incomplete. This of course meant that people did not get a clean and cogent answer to their question. I would also substantiate in the end by saying please read on systems thinking and then verbally mention couple of books. With more people asking me this question over time my responses improved incrementally. But they were still not good enough. Probably what was lacking in me was a thorough, continuous application of systems thinking and modeling on real world situations. Every now and then I use to use systems thinking tools to understand peak oil impacts, localisation benefits, resilience to climate change etc. but then the result was my improved understanding of these issues which would help me in my research and community work. This was particularly helpful for the climate change adaptation project that I was part of at WOTR. But how do I communicate this to others? What evidence exists?

Three years back I got an opportunity to apply systems thinking and modeling for urbanization project at TERI. Kabir and I spearheaded a team of young researchers and developed a city model representing urban carrying capacity and people’s quality of life. We did lot of systems thinking training and use of causal loop diagrams to draw how we understood the city system. A two day training was conducted on system dynamics modeling. The project was successfully delivered and generated much interest among its readers. Then we embarked on economics of grassland degradation project. This was an almost impossible project. We had the task of modeling a grassland ecosystem, Banni, in Kachch. There were so many unkowns in the system that at one point we thought of giving up. But then we worked hard and got very good support from our colleagues at TERI and research support by (institutions) Sahjeevan and ATREE. That project was a leap for us to understand the potential of applying systems thinking and modeling to solve real world problems.

After doing further projects on application of systems thinking and then teaching it to over 1000 students, now I feel I have a better answer to the question, ” What is the advantage of applying systems thinking?”. What I am about to write is purely my interpretation of the benefits I see and is not coming out of a text book. So one must be critical.

Let me quote the great Albert Einstein here, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” I paraphrase this, “Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions and today’s solutions will create tomorrow’s problems.” This speaks volumes about our journey in life and how we adapt and live. If this is true then I think systems thinking and modeling has a big role to play.

I think the real benefit of applying systems thinking to real world problems and even for theory development is that, ” It could help us take decisions and design policies, rules which would reduce the recurrence and severity of the problem we are trying to solve”. This I think is the biggest (potential) benefit of applying systems thinking and modeling. This could be achieved through multiple pathways. It is not necessary that one needs to implement the solutions and only then the results would come. Even the improvement in our understanding about the complexity of real world is instrumental in improving the policy design and decision rules which we use to run our families, companies, society and nations.

The only rider I would attach is that one needs to be very very honest while applying systems thinking and modeling because unlike other disciplines (statistics, math etc.) this discipline depends a lot more on who is modeling and whose mental models really matter. The reliance on the honesty and capability of the researcher and actor is of paramount importance if the potential benefit of applying systems thinking and modeling is to be achieved, as I describe it.

I think my biggest strength, that I discovered, was not my ability to do advance math or expertise in software or field research. It was my ability to stay put, pursue systems thinking and work through my limitations over time. There were a bunch of my classmates and colleagues who, in my opinion, were far better at systems thinking than me. But today I am the only one using it for a living. And I am no scholar or genius like them.

So systems thinking and modeling is for people like us, who are ready to learn and build their capacities. Why? Because I think it is very useful. How?  Because, ” It could help us take decisions and design policies, rules which would reduce the recurrence and severity of the problem we are trying to solve”

… to be contd. See part III

My Journey of Systems Thinking – Part I

I write this post today after an engaging day with students at ISDM on systems thinking and sustainability. The classes start at 9 am and continue till 5 pm. Today was the fourth day and it seems like we have come a long way, not only in terms of students learning systems thinking but the quality of engagement has reached a new level.

The striking point came when students asked me to explain my day at work, on how do I use systems thinking there and the process of its application. The question was striking because it made me feel like the students wanted to know how I have managed to reach this stage where I am doing professional projects using systems thinking and system dynamics. More so because for them the subject looked too difficult to apply in real world for finding solutions. They couldn’t really imagine on how diving deep into complexity of real world problems could yield fruitful results and generate solutions in today’s world. The question was also striking because it gave me a sense of honor because here were a bunch of 65 students interested to learn from my experience.

I feel motivated now to write this post and more on this subject to explain how I started my journey of becoming a systems thinker and convert my skills into professional occupation.

It was in July 2007 when I first learned about systems thinking. Mr. Sushil Bajpai and Mr. Rajinder Raina took our first class on systems thinking at Sadhana Center for Management and Leadership Development (SCMLD), Pune. The first presentation showed to us was of images from zoom book,  a view of life going from microscopic to telescopic. That first presentation made an impression on me. What a fantastic way it was to show how things are interconnected and that we live in a world of systems and sub systems.

The next deck of slides explained us the definition of A System. How do we know what is a system and what is not a system. This was a tricky question. Reads easy but when one thinks about it, it is not so easy to define it well. After some deliberation out came the answer, “A System is made up of parts which are interrelated, interconnected, interdependent having a purpose”. We all went berserk in identifying systems all around us. Since then the subject never really left me. I went on diving deep into it. In the next classes we were introduced to Mental Models. That class in particular was fascinating. It introduced us to the fact that how all of us interpret reality, build images in our mind and use them to take decisions. More importantly that these mental models are flawed, because we use rationality to simplify reality which implies that there are lot of assumptions there which make our mental models inadequate and incomplete. This was quite a revelation for me. I came from a financial markets experience and there the whole game was who has got it right and who knows reality the best in order to predict it and mint money. The best analysts would draw large pay based on how well their models performed in relation with reality. This thought was so well rooted in me that learning about mental models was actually life changing.

The initial few classes had cemented a space for systems thinking in my life. Interestingly, one night in my hostel room, Amey Phadke and I were chatting just before calling it a day. Lying on our beds, with lights put off, we were asking each other where do we see ourselves after five years from now. I cannot remember what Amey replied, but I do remember clearly what I had said, because I said what I really deeply believed. I said, “It looks like I will join stock markets after college, but if you really ask me – deep within I feel that I am made for systems thinking and that’s where I would land up. Honestly speaking I think I would be doing systems thinking”. I did join stock markets after my post grad building equity valuation models for oil and gas companies, doing commodity research and interacting with institutional investors. But within six months I switched careers and moved on to work with Mr. Sushil Bajpai at WOTR and there began my journey of systems thinking and system dynamics, on job. And here I am today writing a post on it after 10 years of having that conversation with Amey at my hostel room.

The journey so far has been full of turning points and life changing moments, some planned, most unplanned.

….. to be contd. See Part II