Systems Insight

Updated: Aug 19, 2020

When presented with very complex messy systems people often get overwhelmed and they become overlay pragmatic; they move rapidly towards simple practical solutions fearing that idealism is impossible. We often take the last steps first, fearful of idealism or are just too lazy to put in the work. We skip over the initial phases of building up real insight into the workings of the system and jump into practicalities. We take for granted the vision, the goal and the current manifestation of the system as just the way it is. Of course, by doing this we are throwing out the very opportunity to reinvent it. We are just creating all sorts of impossibilities and constraints for ourselves farther down the line that will ultimately lead us back into the same patterns of thought and action that have had limited success in the past.

Systems are abstract things; a transport system is not a thing like a car that you can touch or hold it is a complex network of connections that you will never be able to fully see or touch. The only way you will ever be able to grasp a large transport system will be through some abstract model or map. The point is without abstract models we are going nowhere. Practicality is great but practicality alone will get you nowhere. Whether we like it or not complexity means that we have to move to higher levels of abstraction, we can not do complexity without theories and models. We can not be afraid of embracing abstraction and letting go of practicalities, if you start with budget constraints or stakeholder analysis we will not get very far, there is a place for those things but it is later on, once the theory is figured out.  

As a general principle what is wrong in theory cannot be right in practice, only what is right in theory will deliver sustainable solutions, and we will only know what is right in theory by doing the theorizing. Abstract theories open our eyes to possibilities and solutions that we would otherwise bypass, they enable us to see and search a broader space in order to find solutions that we otherwise could not even imagine. That is the problem with assumptions, we assume there is nothing out there that we already have the answer, when in fact there may be a much better solution but you are not going to find it without looking and theories give us that capacity to see. Innovation is a search and model are the tools that let us see.

Systems innovation can be seen to be based upon the premise that incremental change of the parts is not going to solve the real issues at hand; the idea that what needs to change in the system is not any of its parts but the very structure of the system as a whole. Of course, the point of changing the system is to someway improve it, there is no point in changing a system if you are going to make it worse or the same as before.

Systems Model

Our basic premise here is this; you can’t improve a system without understanding it. The problem is that most people do not understand the system they are a part of. This is a key issue we have, most of us have an idea for what a system is, many of us know something about systems thinking or even ascribe to being systems thinkers, but actually very few of us are able to understand the organisations we operate within in a systemic way.

As Russell Ackoff puts it[1] “Although everyone is aware that a corporation, a school, a hospital or a society or a government is a system, practically no one knows what a system is. That is not nearly as important as the fact that they are not aware of what being in a system implies for effective management and that is where we are going wrong, as a nation and as part of the Western economy, it is the failure to understand what is required to be an effective manager of a system.”

If you don’t understand what you are doing as a system you do not understand its dynamical behavior but worse than this without really understanding it you have no objective criteria for what it better and worse. Without understanding the system you have only your subjective interpretation of how you would like it to be. This subjective interpretation is typically just base upon your desire for the system to conform to your interests. It is really just a desired to alter the system so that it accommodates you better – although that will likely be masqueraded in all sorts of psychological tricks to dress it up as some kind of great altruism about how you are helping others and saving the world.

The world is not short of this kind of great altruists who think that if they could just get in power – or if their leader could just get into power – then they would be able to straighten the whole thing out to the benefit of humanity. Of course what they are lacking is quite simply an understanding of the system they are operating in, with only this narrow understanding we create a unidimensional solution and try to get into a place of authority so as to impose that on others and we often do this with the best of intentions.

The results of not investing in developing our insight into the system is we all spend our time fighting over who should be in authority and which subjective perspective should be implemented; the result is either a dictatorship of one subjective solution crowding out all others, or a democracy where we go round in a circle as we cycle from one subjective perspective being imposed before another set of people come to power with their opinions and rewrite what happened before. No real progress is made in either scenario as we shift the blame, create unintended consequences and simply go round in circles, sometimes getting lucky and making progress before fortunes turn and things go in the opposite direction.

The root issue here is of course that we do not properly understand the system we are a part of, and thus have not been able to create objective metrics for improvement and to overcome our own subjective interests. Systems thinking starts with a degree of reflexivity, it asks that we look at our own assumptions, paradigm, and desires; question those and try to go beyond them to achieve some kind of objectivity in our reasoning and course of action. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “if you want to change the world, start with yourself.”[2] Then you stand a chance of understanding the world around you as in some way separate from your own desires, interests, and motives. This is when you gain some kind of greater objective view of the system you form part of and have the potential to actually change it.

We think that Africa is full of poor people who need us to go and save them, when in fact if we stopped and made an in-depth assessment of Africa’s social and economic systems we would likely find quite the opposite. In the process of stopping, looking, listening and reflecting we overcome our ego and create the potential for really doing something of real benefit to the system rather than just of benefit to ourselves.


Thus systems innovation starts with trying to gain a deep understanding of the system that you are trying to innovate in. This is not just an analysis of its current form and functionality, you have to actually understand it in the abstract, that is to understand the system independent of its current form. For example, if you are trying to improve the electrical power grid in India this may start with an abstract question of what is an energy system? If you want to improve the network of hospitals in Australia start with the question, what is a health system?

This makes sense because the point of innovation is to create something different from what exists, if your point of reference is solely what exists, your potential for creating something different is limited. The broader you start your inquiry the wider the net you are casting the less you are likely to miss anything and the greater your space to create a true paradigm shift in the system. System innovation is about starting not with the specific problems that you are currently facing but instead starting with the system as a whole so as to make a change on that level that will make the current issues no longer relevant. We do not worry about overuse of fossil fuels because if we could make real innovation in the whole system we probably would not even need them, a better way of doing things would emerge.

By going to this very abstract level we start to see the full set of possibilities and break out of thinking that only what exists is possible. We have to start from a clean slate and then later re-introduce the practical limiting constraints. By doing this we can break out of our assumptions. People will often say that things are done the way they are because that is the only way they could be, when you ask for change they will present all sorts of reasons why change is impossible and things have to be the way they are.

But if we want to be truly innovative we have to test every single one of the constraints that are presented to us. Don’t take anything for granted and don’t accept the constraints of people who have all sorts of motives not to change the system, they will always present it as an immutable structure naturally created out of some given force inherent in the design of the universe. If you were some upstart five hundred years ago this is exactly what the Catholic church would have said to you, that the rule of the Catholic church was written in the stars and that is just the way it is and always will be. Those same forces of inertia are all around us telling us that change is impossible – that banks are so large they will never fade away, that Facebook has so many users it could never be superseded, that the nation-state is an immutable part of the social order.

Some things are impossible but you will never know which ones are and are not until you take your understanding of the system you are building to the abstract level where anything is possible and then start to reintroduce all the components required to make that system a reality; as you go along question and test each and every element to see what is really possible and thus what the real constraints are. If you can do this what you will see is that the existing system is but one solution to the given problem, it is but one concrete instantiation of the abstract system and you will start to see the other options available to you. This is, of course, critical to enabling systems level innovation, because it creates a space of possibilities much larger than would normally be the case and thus creates the possibility for a much larger scale of transformation.


As a general principle, you should not alter a system unless you really understand how it is working. If you are Beethoven or James Joyce then you can break the rules and build something better, but they could only do that because they had first mastered the languages they were using. As Donella Meadows notes[2] “Don’t be an unthinking intervener and destroy the system’s own self-maintenance capacities. Before you charge in to make things better, pay attention to the value of what’s already there.”

Most complex systems have many layers of abstraction and organization that are hidden from immediate visibility and understanding. As we have grown up in these systems it is often very difficult for us to appreciate all of the layers of order and organization that was just given to us – built by someone in the past and now so well established that we take it for granted. Few of us appreciate all the layers of social institutions, legal frameworks, political organization, financial institutions, public administration etc. required to achieve the level of functionality and organization that we have achieved so far within developed economies or even have an understanding of this on the level of just one enterprise.

Most of the major systems we are interested in are complex adaptive systems that have evolved over a prolonged period, the function and components that form part of them have been subjected to evolutionary selection under a multiplicity of conditions over decades or centuries. If you have survived a prolonged process of evolution it typically means you are there for some reason, whether that is positive or negative it still means that the system in some way needs that component or connection and you should be careful before you do something to it. Indeed we can note that a lot of our current environmental challenges come from the fact that we have started to alter major earth systems without understanding how they work and all the dependencies within our socio-ecological systems.

Changing a system without a deep understanding of its structure and dynamics will just lead to unintended consequences.[3] It is probably better to live with a dysfunctional system until you understand its workings than to try to change it when you do not yet have a comprehensive understanding of it in the abstract. To do system innovation successfully you ultimately need a deep insight into the workings of that system that will provide a base for you to know what is needed and what is not needed.

1. YouTube. (2018). Russell Ackoff – Systems-Based Improvement, Pt 1. [online] Available at: [Accessed 25 Jul. 2018].

2. Mahatma Gandhi Quote. (2020). Retrieved 19 August 2020, from,the%20world%2C%20start%20with%20yourself.

3. The Academy for Systems Change. (2018). Dancing With Systems. [online] Available at: [Accessed 25 Jul. 2018].

4. The Unintended Consequences of "Having an Impact" - The Systems Thinker. (2016). Retrieved 19 August 2020, from

Systems Innovation

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