Systems thinking done broadly allows us to take into consideration the various factors — structures, activities, relationships, interconnections — that can influence our organization, market, and domain of inquiry.
One of the fundamental qualities of systems is that they have boundaries. For example, when we consider an organization as a system we need to place boundaries on that organization such as who to include (e.g., all employees? full-time vs part-time? paid staff vs volunteers? settings or sites? etc..). There is no correct choice, just a useful one. Your boundary choices are to reflect what you are seeking to understand and how you’re seeking to act.
But how do you tell? We share with you a remarkably simple, but powerful way to scope your systems and determine if you have set the right boundaries.
If you set your boundaries of inclusion in the system and find that you are lost and struggling to identify, map, or monitor the various interconnections, actors, actions, and outcomes within a system because there is too much to focus on then that is a sign you have bounded your system too loosely.
If you’re continuously finding yourself trying to explain what happened in the system by things outside of the boundaries, then you have bounded your system too tightly.
It may take some experimentation to get your boundaries right, however these two criteria can tell you if you’re on the right track or not.
Systems-informed strategy, mapping, and evaluation can be complicated, but understanding the boundaries does not have to be. This simple strategy has consistently allowed organizations to focus on what matters and avoid getting lost. The key is to make sure you have the ‘just right’ amount of detail and focus to allow you to make a meaningful sense of things and guide your action.
If you want help implementing a systems strategy for innovation and change in your organization or network, contact us.