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A Philosophy for Systems Change

by Steven Sullivan
5 min read
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Curious to know about a philosophy that liberates our innate need for control? Then read to find out.

A small Japanese café recently opened downstairs from our office. The coffee is good, and the food is delicious, but it’s their pottery that is most interesting. Handmade by an experienced Japanese chef and clay artist, it’s wonky, rough, and feels like you’re holding a masterpiece. The naturalness and imperfections are alluring. In a funny way, this same appreciation for the raw and unconventional also guides our approach to systems change.

A Philosophy for Systems Change

To understand why we must start with the nature of systems change. Each system is unique. Whether designing for organizational change or social impact, we’re dealing with social systems that are complex, open, dynamic, and networked[i].

Complex: there are many interconnected actors and factors, often elusive and out of sight

Open: it’s hard to define the boundaries of influence, there are many ‘outside’ influences

Dynamic: there’s constant change, what’s needed today is different tomorrow

Networked: shifting the system requires many people and different types of knowledge

Dynamics of Change: Our Situations Devolve and Evolve

It might seem like a paradox, but complex situations have similar patterns. When creating a culture of innovation or improving mental health outcomes it can be hard to know where to start. The real complexity doesn’t reveal itself until we intervene. More resources do not mean more success. The exhaustive, rational analysis doesn’t give all the answers. Even solutions that work initially can eventually cause unintended consequences. At its worst, we’ve seen recycling interventions that encourage criminal behavior and innovation programs that stifle creativity.

When a complex, adaptive system must be managed, it’s navigating these behaviors that cause headaches. It can feel like staring into a broken mirror, questioning yourself as you tussle between control and an illusion of control. Conventional thinking misses the bigger picture. It keeps you focused on the parts and not the whole, it’s like running to stand still. We need an antidote to move forward. A guiding philosophy equipped for the multidimensional challenges of designing for systems change.

A Philosophy for Systems Change

Wabi-Sabi: A Design Philosophy for Complexity

Wabi-sabi is an elusive and complex concept. An ancient Japanese philosophy passed on from master to student indirectly over much time. It’s a comprehensive worldview that offers metaphysical, spiritual, moral, and material knowledge. In Leonard Koren’s book, Wabi-sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers[ii], he describes it as:

The beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.

It is a beauty of things modest and humble.

It is a beauty of things unconventional.

A Philosophy for Systems Change

This is what we see in the wonky pottery in our café and when we design for systems change. It’s an appreciation of how things devolve and evolve. Far more than aesthetic pleasure, this ancient Japanese philosophy helps us navigate complex, open, dynamic, and networked systems change.

Social Systems: The Beauty of Imperfect, Impermanent, and Incomplete Information

Systems change is the domain of the unknown unknowns[iii]. Adaptive systems are in constant flux. Cause and effect are often not closely related in time and space. Emergent patterns can be perceived in hindsight but not predicted. We can never have all the data.

Through years of sense-making for organizational and social challenges, we’ve observed it’s the hidden rules[iv] that have the most impact. These unspoken influences lurk as a shadow authority. When setting up an innovation practice, we hear organizations’ espoused theories, but we see it’s their theories-in-use[v], the values and norms that drive behavior. Similarly, many influences on systemic social challenges are out of sight. These underlying conditions are multidimensional and dynamic. We cannot know all the hidden rules. We cannot rely on predictability. Accepting this is liberating, it gives comfort to make progress with imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete information.

A Philosophy for Systems Change

Social Systems: The Beauty of Modest and Humble Learning

Systems change is about continuous learning. Imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete information means we need to build the capacity to learn. Solutions that work in one context or at one time, won’t necessarily work when repeated. Evidence and best practice must be applied modestly as a starting point. Wabi-sabi reveals that greatness exists in the inconspicuous overlooked details.

Humility comes from valuing lived experience. This qualitative data is rich in meaning but it can’t be rushed. An understanding of the essence of experience requires time and reflection. Humility also means accepting that no one sees the whole system. When we look to understand how an organization operates, we talk with multiple departments. If we’re trying to change social outcomes, we learn from deep, weird, and meaningful experts: domain experts, experts in a laterally related domain, and people with lived experience. Wabi-sabi encourages us to seek different perspectives for richer sense-making.

A Philosophy for Systems Change

Social Systems: The Beauty of Unconventional Thinking

Systems change requires a deep and thoughtful approach to questioning how we see the situation. We must provoke care and imagination to unfix our thinking. We explore and challenge the values and metaphors that underlie our language and mental models. These assumptions impose a direction and imply certain types of solutions. If we want to transition to a new state, we need to acknowledge the conventional way does not work.

We can’t solve problems by using the same thinking that created them.

Intractable situations require playfully framing and reframing. New frames let us explore new worlds and new learning opportunities. It’s through exploring unexpected places that you can find the adjacent possible[vi]. We must bring creativity to the heart of systems change.

A Philosophy for Systems Change

The Beauty of complexity

Embracing wabi-sabi brings clarity to complexity. It helps us appreciate how different parts relate to each other as they devolve and evolve to produce changing outcomes. Systems change is wonky and rough, like handmade Japanese pottery. We have a philosophy that liberates our innate need for control. We can see the beauty in situations that are complex, open, dynamic, and networked.


[i] Dorst, K., 2015. Frame Innovation — create new thinking by design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

[ii] Koren, L., 1994. Wabi-sabi for artists, designers, poets & philosophers. Berkeley, Calif: Stone Bridge Press.

[iii] Snowden, D. J., & Boone, M. E. 2007. A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making. Harvard Business Review, 85(11): 68–76

[iv] Bower, J., Crabtree, E., & Keogh, W., 1997. Rhetorics and realities in new product development in the subsea oil industry. Centre for Management Studies, Aberdeen University

[v]Argyris, C., Putnam, R., & Smith, D., 1985. Action Science. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

[vi] Johnson, S., 2010. Where Good Ideas Come from: The Natural History of Innovation. Riverhead Books

Images: 1) Tento Café, Surry Hills, 2) Source, 3) Source, 4) Source, 5) Source, 6) Source

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.

post authorSteven Sullivan

Steven Sullivan,

Steven Sullivan is a Strategic Design & Innovation Consultant at How To Impact, a boutique consultancy in Surry Hills, Sydney. Steven studies Transdisciplinarity, Complexity, Futuring and Innovation Ecosystems at the UTS TD School.

Ideas In Brief
  • The author talks about the nature of systems change and unpacks the following ideas:
    • Dynamics of Change: Our Situations Devolve and Evolve
    • Wabi-Sabi: A Design Philosophy for Complexity
    • Social Systems: The Beauty of Imperfect, Impermanent, and Incomplete Information
    • Social Systems: The Beauty of Modest and Humble Learning
    • Social Systems: The Beauty of Unconventional Thinking

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