Seeing Systems Structure

Updated: Aug 18

Recently while in London I got a chance to visit The Children’s Society at their new office and have a chat with Caitlin O’Neill Gutierrez, who is their Systems Change Lead. It was quite a refreshing conversation to hear a charity that is over 100 years old and from a quite conservative background talking about “disruption” “agility” and “systems change.”

Caitlin told me a bit about how their organization works across England and the Uk to support children with multiple disadvantages. Children facing multiple disadvantages are subject to a collection of possible issues including homelessness, broken families, substance misuse, contact with the criminal justice system or possibly mental ill-health. The multidimensional and holistic nature of the kind of issues these people are dealing with means they in many ways fall through the gaps of traditional public services, making it harder for them to address their problems and lead fulfilling lives.

She said that her’s and other charities were turning to system change at least partially because they felt like they weren’t making the real breakthroughs that they could – after all, they had been around for over a century and were still tackling the same problems, without any major breakthroughs. 

After a short while of getting to know the situation, the conversation turned to organizational silos and how all these different organizations were looking at the same problem through their own lens and how that dynamic might be altered to enable systems to change. It got me thinking afterward because it seems emblematic of so many situations we face today in a world of messy complex holistic challenges that we stay trying to fit into need boxes.

Like Fish In Water

Such challenges require a structural change in the systems through which we organize ourselves towards addressing them, but “systems” and “structure” seem to be precisely the things that we fail to see and change. What we seem to systematically fail to see is the structure of the systems that we employ – I think we are a bit like a fish in water when it comes to systems and their structure, it takes a sustainability crisis and the disintegration of those system structures for us to start to recognize them. 

The inevitable result of this is that when the problems get more challenging our only solution is to try to make our boxes go a bit faster and a bit better, which at best may lead to incremental progress or at worst might just make the problem worse. I would say the reason we are in those boxes in the first place is because of our reductionist ways of thinking, that centralizes and decomposes into components and then creates these linear processes to push out standardized products and services to the end-user.

As a side note, recently I have been trying to think about the connection between reductionist thinking and the centralized vertical design to our organizations. It seems to me something like this – with reductionism, we always define a closed system and then break it down into its parts and then try to understand, control and predict the whole according to the linear interaction of the parts. This is exactly what we do with our organizations, we concentrate production and resources in the center with a closed boundary around them, we break the organization down into parts until we get to the smallest unit that a person can perform and then we connect those part together through linear processes of production while coordinating everything through this hierarchy of parts.

Anyway to get back to the point – breaking out of these boxes requires thinking differently. We need something that focuses our attention not on the center, the parts, and linear processes but something that helps us look at the whole network of connections and the nonlinear processes the give rise to the emergence of organization.

When we do this we start to see that the world out there is not a series of boxes, it is more like a messy whole. A person with multiple disadvantages and needs is not a pile of individual requirements, health, education, housing, finance, work, transport – every day they are all of those things all mixed together. Their health and psychological well being affect their job opportunities, which affects their finances, affects their housing conditions, etc.

The same is true for all complex issues, like the environmental crisis, we may try to swap it for a climate issue, which we then quickly swap for a discussion on CO2 emissions which will somehow fit into one of our fix long term planning boxes. But by the time that we have managed to fit it into that box we have lost sight of the real messy interconnected issue – soil erosion, groundwater depletion, loss of insects and biodiversity, ocean plastic and other pollutants, etc. The real issue is not any one of them it is all of them interconnected.

Is There A Different Way

So is there a better way? For sure there is, it just requires us to think and organize differently, to start with the messy interconnectedness of the real world and ask how can we organize ourselves around that – rather than the other way round – how can we take all these boxes and string them together into whole processes that interconnect across the various domains and activities that are required to deal with the issue as a whole. 

Move from bringing everything into the center with everything then gravitating around the centralized organization to the opposite, putting the issue or user at the center and organizing around that horizontally. Move from everyone in their own box optimizing for their metrics to a process or network that interconnects them around that messy issue. This means putting the person or issue at the center and creating an infrastructure of connectivity between the relevant parties so that they can work collaboratively within a common process to meet the person’s end needs. 

Collaboration does not come naturally to a generation of people who were raised, educated and work their whole career in a disconnected world. To realize it, to make collaboration concrete and sustainable it needs to be built into the metrics so that you shift the incentives from a system that incentivizes for production to one that incentivizes for outcomes. This means putting the person or issue at the center and their sense of progress as a whole, rather than what each employee or each organization delivers. That is to say switching to the real outcome to the end-user with the metric and incentives working back from this. 

Why did we not always do this? Partly because of our way of thinking but also largely because of the lack of information. What has changed is the infrastructure of connectivity is now available to almost everyone meaning we can now easily connect all the boxes into an integrated process and connect that with the end-users experience because they can now easily make their voices heard and engage in the discussion providing, data about what is really working for them.


In the past we develop organizations to solve specific problems – provide water, produce plastic toys or provide healthcare – they were all designed to optimize for whatever they were producing and to incentivize and reward their members for that. As the world has become more interconnected so too have the issues, but without changing our thinking it is inevitable that we will go on all crowding round the problem with our own particular box; our own methods, procedures, and metrics for success. 

We all talk about the need for collaboration but unfortunately it often looks like an extension of the existing model, something like the European Union or United Nations where we get all the members – who are still incentivized to optimize for their own closed organization – around a table and plead them to be nice and think of the common good. Of course, the result of this is that they all say lovely things but nothing happens because they are really part of a system that incentivizes for nothing to happen, because the cost-benefit equation for those organizations does not work out and they are no longer able to attract the leaders required to overcome that.

We move beyond this by changing the structure of the games we are playing. That happens by changing the conceptual and organizational paradigm to one that is based on connectivity; the connectivity created by information flows rather than the disconnectivity – if that word exists – created by geographical constraints that are no longer as relevant.

The amazing thing is that this is not some pipe dream as it may have been just a few decades ago but possible given the new tools for coordination and communication that we have, it is a question of thinking differently, to see open systems instead of closed, to harness connectivity rather than depend upon boundaries, to build networked organizations that can harness complexity rather than grinding to a halt in the face of it.

Systems Innovation

  • LinkedIn
  • YouTube
  • Twitter
  • Facebook