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Systems Thinking: the revolutionary way to unlock digital engagement

What is Systems Thinking?

Systems thinking is a way of looking at the world. Systems thinkers look at something, identify the key factors that shape it, analyse how those factors interact with one another, and, when things go wrong, find the root cause of the problems.

The pandemic is the most obvious example. Governments are regularly criticised for not having joined-up policies, but COVID-19 forced policy-makers to become systems thinkers. They had to examine the interactions between many factors behind virus transmission, including travel, socialisation, and economic disruption. Any changes to these factors had knock-on consequences for the others making this an extremely complex systems challenge.

Systems Thinking and the Environment

The term ‘systems thinking’ was originally coined in 1987 by Barry Richmond and is widely used in projects aiming to tackle global challenges like those taken on by the World Economic Forum.

Perhaps the most common use of systems thinking is in the concept of ‘ecosystems’. It is now widely understood that natural environments are complex things and that you must look at the ecosystem as a whole if you are to avoid well-intentioned but bad policies with unforeseen consequences.

Systems Thinking and You

Systems thinking sounds complex but can be easily applied to everyday life.

The Iceberg Model is based on the work of Edward Hall in the 1970s when he was trying to explain how culture was transmitted. His theory was that culture can only be observed superficially – like an iceberg, only 10% can be seen with the naked eye. The rest is beneath the surface; the only way to understand a culture is to participate fully.

That insight has been developed by systems thinkers who believe that there are four levels to understanding challenges. This diagram from Ecochallenge applies the iceberg model to a very basic personal challenge – why am I getting more colds?

How Systems Thinking Differs From Traditional Thinking

Systems thinking is both more sophisticated and vaguer than traditional thinking. Systems thinkers watch patterns over time, find mental models that partially explain those patterns, and keep an eye open for new models.

Barry Richmond identifies 7 types of thinking essential for systems thinkers, and it boils down to ensuring that you can see the wood for the trees.

3 Ways to Use Systems Thinking in Digital Content Strategy

Systems thinking is particularly useful in digital content planning and production. That’s because there’s lots of data to analyse, complex interactions between websites, search engines, and social media, and huge prizes for those who get it right:

  1. Patterns/Trends: Digital content systems thinkers study user data and look for behaviour patterns.
  2. Underlying structures: Systems thinkers constantly run experiments in formats, style, tone, framing, and length to probe deeper into what is driving behaviour. Crucially, they also experiment by varying efforts across digital channels to see where the maximum impact can be had.
  3. Mental models: Systems thinkers carry in their minds a set of working hypotheses about who their audiences are and what they really need. Those hypotheses are under constant review.