Systemic Collaboration

Updated: Aug 13



Systemic Collaboration


We live in a world of boxes; policymakers, environmentalists, designers, technologists, business management, foodies, or investors, we are all part of communities with their own paradigm and view of the world, our “boxes”. I don’t think there is anything wrong with this, it is just the way the world works. As we grow and develop we come to focus more on a specific domain, that domain imbues us with a body of knowledge, practice, and methodology for solving the domain’s given challenges. This paradigm is passed on to each new cohort, whether this is how to run a business, compose music, build bridges or structure an investment portfolio.


By rationalizing our solutions to given problems we make them easier and faster to solve. We all have tools for solving problems, sometimes they are simple, sometimes a lot more elaborate. We might call this methodology the tools of the trade. For example, recently I have been thinking quite a bit about philanthropy. The philanthropy community has money to solve problems – let’s call this tool a hammer – so the community of philanthropists – or people who operate on their behalf – go out looking for problems that can be solved by giving money, ie looking for nails to hit with their hammer. 


Some of us have hammers, some screwdrivers, jackhammers, shovels, bulldozers, or thinks for plugging up holes in pipes, you name it. We all have a tool for solving a given problem and all is well in the land of simple and even complicated problems. The issues arise when the interconnectivity starts to increase and the interdependence increases and the boxes start to no longer fit. When things start to get complex, the rules that seemed to be written in stone for a simpler world start falling to pieces and everything starts to grind to a halt.


Take our philanthropy example. All works well as long as there are problems that look like nails – e.g. giving money to poor children in Africa. However, after a while, the low hanging fruit is all gone. Sooner or later we bump into something that looks more like a screw than a nail. We realize that the money we were giving to children in Africa is being siphoned off by the political elite. Now things have become political, a bit more complex, money alone may not help here, we are going to have to think politically also. Then we notice that if we could just get the corporations to make the right investments in rural communities things could be greatly accelerated, so we have to think about business also. Then we realize climate change is disrupting the livelihood of those rural poor, now we have to consider this, we have to think ecologically, etc.


When problems get really complex they start to involve a whole pile of nails, screws, bolts, wholes, pipes, engines, etc. a hammer alone, screwdrivers alone, or spanners alone, start to grind to a halt. So what do we do when things get complex? We start to recognize that no one can solve the problem alone, we start to talk about collaboration. Typically we do this in small teams that can get a diversity of people around a problem. We also do it at a large scale creating “multi-stakeholder” dialogues and forums. At scale, these multi-stakeholder engagements become artificial when what is needed is a much more organic form of collaboration. This comes not from putting people in a room together but instead from changing the paradigm, changing the stories that the communities are telling themselves. 


I think the thing to note about communities is that we connect with each other in a context; paradigms and the context they create are how we find each other, without context, we don’t connect. The context and paradigm each community creates for itself set the parameters for its capacity to connect. Investors connect with investors because they live within the investing paradigm, policymakers with policymakers, entrepreneurs with entrepreneurs, etc. it is about the stories we create. 


Currently, each of those communities and the stories they tell themselves are predominantly inward-focused, they are not part of a story that connects with other communities. Each community is facing the same big mess of complex challenges but looking at it from its own perspective and thinking their tool is the right one to solve the issue; whether that is money, technology, regulation, etc. 


What we find is that even though each one of those communities may be doing amazing stuff – with all the best intentions – no amount of optimizing individual parts leads to an optimal outcome for the whole. As Russ Ackoff said: “A system is not a sum of the behavior of its parts, it’s the product of their interactions… If we have a system of improvement that is directed at improving the parts taken separately, you can be absolutely sure that the performance of the whole will not be improved, and that can be rigorously proven.”


Environmentalists can be protesting everywhere, investors putting billions into green investing, solar panels selling like there is no tomorrow, and while each community is banging away as hard as possible with its tool and optimizing its little sphere with outstanding results, the whole can still be getting worse. The only way to ensure that both the parts and the whole are optimized is to work synergistically through a systemic form of collaboration. We have to have collaboration by default, not patched on to the side. The collaboration will be expensive and artificial until there is a narrative that connects the different communities, then it starts to grow organically. This means changing the paradigm from stories of the parts to stories of the whole, how the part – in this case, the given community – can not solve its given challenges without working synergistically with the other parts, ie other communities.


The question for me then is how do we start to change the stories within these communities – this may be no more than a small change – so that they start to see that to get the outcomes they desire individually they need to be involved in and engaged in a shared story with the other communities that enables the emergence of shared dialog. As a specific example, I think of the systems change community and the community of decentralized technologists (think blockchain). Both communities are interested in large scale systems change but are doing it through very different means and are largely oblivious to each other. Both are telling themselves stories that are in someways inward-focused inhibiting them from looking outside their box and connecting with the other. 


I could write a whole blog post on the subject of these two communities but I will leave it here for now. The main takeaway: we need systemic collaboration, not just getting a few people in the room from different groups, but large scale, decentralized, organic forms of collaboration that span across whole communities and societies. This starts with changing the paradigm within these different communities to create new context wherein they inherently recognize their interdependence and collaboration becomes organic and widespread not just narrowly focused within specific formal instances. 


At the opening of our last conference in London, Louis Klein said something that stuck with me and seemed to sum it up: “We know that all the old stories which have helped us to navigate the last 10,000 years, the legends, the myths, the kings and queens and all that – what is still served in things like Game of Thrones – do not sufficiently help us to navigate the 21st century. We live in a world where systems have grown into a size and into a character, based on emergence, that we know that the whole is different from the sum of its parts, and stories helping us to navigate the sum of parts are not the stories that help us to navigate the power of context and emergence.”

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Systems Innovation

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