Sara Farley

4 April, 2017

How Unifying Systems and Futures Approaches Helps Improve Decision Making

Our current blog series looks into the ways different organisations use foresight and Horizon Scanning within their current projects. To learn about the International Civil Society Centre’s foresight platform, visit the Scanning the Horizon page.

Look to the outside

Faced with complexity, decision makers, more than ever, struggle to understand how the impact of their actions will play out in the world around them. To overcome this lack of clarity, decision makers can arm themselves with a new, powerful approach: Systems Thinking.

A “system” is a set of actors and interactions that form a coherent whole, perform a specific function, and have a boundary that sets it apart from the rest of the world.  These systems can be centered around a problem (e.g., pollution), an industry (e.g., health care), or even a geography (e.g., the United States). Systems Thinking is a mindset with which a person can look at the components of a system and explore how they interact and what the unintended consequences of those interactions may be.  While systems analysis is starting to infiltrate more and more social sector organisations and large international donors, most systems practice focuses on isolating dimensions of a single system and trying to understand them. At the Global Knowledge Initiative (GKI), where we pursue systemic transformation by helping groups collaboratively innovate, we recognise that no single system offers the full picture. Rather, our work suggests we can only measure innovation’s potential for impact by examining the intersection and interactions between three systems: (1) the problem space of focus, (2) the system from which innovation is sourced (the innovation system), and (3) the context in which challenges and innovations intersect (the context).

However, systems do not stay as they are. Rather, they are constantly changing. Consider the health care industry: while decision makers attempt to better understand the state of health care in the United States, new healthcare innovations are being created, new hospitals are being built or shuttered, and socioeconomic changes across various demographic segments shifts the picture of healthcare needs from place to place. So how are decision makers to keep up with the shifting systems around them?

GKI addresses this challenge by incorporating Futures Foresight, an approach that uses critical thinking to consider possible futures, with Systems Thinking.  Building on Horizon Scanning that seeks to detect early signs of potentially important developments in the future, our approach encourages teams to consider the variation among multiple possible long term futures.  Rooted in the future to which teams aspire, the tools equip users to work through the present state of their challenge to explore transition pathways to their ideal future.

Incorporating Futures Foresight allows decision makers to find signals of how a specific enabler or barrier in the present moment might have a positive impact on the future. For example, someone working in the healthcare system can use systems approaches to identify gaps in healthcare service delivery most ripe for innovation by identifying the enablers and barriers to systems change in the future. In bringing together Futures Foresight with systems approaches GKI’s approach enables decision makers to look beyond the present to consider how potential enablers and barriers to innovation, and ultimately the impact of innovation, may change a system over time.

At GKI, this combination of systems thinking and Futures Foresight underpins our Assessing Innovation Impact Potential (AIIP) toolset: a collection of tools that equips decision makers to better understand the challenges in which they work and to uncover those solutions best poised for impact. By looking at the intersection of problems and innovations, and how this intersection is likely to evolve, the AIIP toolset improves decision makers’ confidence necessary for investing their resources and creating change.

Between 2015 and 2016, GKI piloted our AIIP toolset with The Rockefeller Foundation and the United States Agency for International Development on a variety of challenges in healthcare, agriculture, etc.  The pilots offer a few key lessons. First, systems tools cannot reach their maximum potential if those applying them fail to embrace systems thinking. With absent mindsets, tools do little.  Second, collaboration and coordination between key stakeholders seeking to address systems challenges is essential to producing a robust systems analysis.  Methods to organise and align stakeholder perceptions help to create an analysis that best matches shared organisational values. Third, great care must be taken in determining how best to right-size systems analysis to an organisation’s capacity to use it effectively for innovation decision making

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