Making sense of complexity in the public sector

Seeing that bigger picture helps you make better decisions

I’m a service design lead at dxw, and one of the things I enjoy most about my role is trying to identify the root causes of problems. I like helping clients and teams find solutions that directly address problems, and not just their symptoms. This is why I find systems thinking useful in the public sector projects I work on.

What is systems thinking and why do we need it?

Services tend to operate within an ecosystem of other services, and each one brings its own set of interactions and dependencies. When we’re working with public sector organisations to develop better services, often one of the first things we need to do is gain an understanding of the complex ecosystems we’re working within.

Establishing a holistic view of an organisation is important when you’re thinking about the impact of any change. It means you can:

  • provide properly integrated solutions
  • avoid operating in silos
  • avoid introducing unintended consequences for people using the services
  • consider how a service might be supported and improved over time

Systems thinking is about seeing that bigger picture to help you make better decisions. Thinking outside of your product or service and understanding how, where and when it fits, helps you to design better. It also helps to open up opportunities you may not have considered before.

Looking back at a few of the projects I’ve worked on, I’ve been able to break down my systems thinking approach into 5 steps that I’ve learned through practice and experience.

Step 1: start with your goal in mind

It’s helpful to start every project with a clear ambition or problem statement. What do you want to understand about your service? What will it help you to do? Why is that valuable to the organisation, or the users? Having a clear goal enables you to explore multiple outcomes and look at projects through different lenses.

Starting with a goal in mind also helps you to think about your audience. What do people need to do with the outcome of the work? Who’ll be using it? Are they domain experts or are they new to the topic? What do they need to learn from it? What are they trying to achieve?

You could sketch out some ideas for the output of your research. At this point, it should be super rough and you should be prepared for it to change. But having something tangible to point to is really helpful when trying to understand what people need to learn, or how they plan to use the work.

Step 2: identify the components in the system

Think about how the components in the system connect. (Your components could be key milestones like ‘consultation’, ‘examination’, ‘iteration’, user needs and behaviours, software or tools, whole services or stakeholders etc.) What are the dependencies? Where are the boundaries? What’s out of your organisation’s control? Once you’ve identified these components, you can start to draft some hypotheses to test. Thinking in this way makes the learnings much clearer. Is something true or false? Either answer is okay. Because you’ve learned something.

Although I’ve said this is step 2, it’s more than likely that your understanding of these components will evolve as you carry out more research. Be prepared to draft several iterations of your components and their connections and dependencies as you find out more.

Step 3: learn from mistakes

We often have very little time to get up to speed on a whole new area. We can jump from one project about how emergency healthcare is triaged, to another one that’s focused on affordable housing, or school inspections. It means you get good at absorbing a lot of information, and doing your best to generate as much understanding as you can in a short period of time.

But, however hard we try, we have to be prepared for there to be some misunderstanding of what we’ve heard. Don’t be afraid to reconsider some of your conclusions as the work continues. You can test your understanding. How does a scenario play out based on your conclusions? Does it make sense? Does it accurately reflect what you’ve learned from research? Are there gaps that you need to look into to give you an example of how your understanding can grow?

Organise your information

It can be useful to experiment with different ways of organising information depending on what you want to understand. A switching forces diagram, or a push pull methodology, can help you organise insights from user research. This approach is especially useful when you’re trying to identify what could encourage a change in people’s habits or practice.

It works by mapping out things that will encourage behaviour change, and things that will hold people back from that change. From here, you can better analyse the balance between the two. If there seem to be more or stronger themes that would hold people back from change, then you know there’ll be a risk to success.

It’s also really good at highlighting things that people value, and aspects that would benefit from some attention and problem solving. This is a great tool to use with a team after some research playback to summarise what you’ve learned. And it’s a really simple way to start making some connections between behaviours and outcomes.

Involve Subject Matter Experts

Input from Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) can be crucial to developing a thorough understanding of a system and how it connects and operates. SMEs are particularly useful when you’re dealing with sensitive information. And when you’re trying to understand in more detail the impact that changes to a system or service will have on those who use it. They can also be fantastic sounding boards to your research approach and research synthesis.

So if you have access to SMEs, try to involve them in some way. Whether it’s upfront defining the problem to be solved in research, analysis and synthesis, in crafting a vision for the future, or even as critical friends.

Step 4: collaborate

This may sound pretty obvious, but it’s related to the previous point. Invite subject matter experts, different teams from the organisation and, if you can, those who interact with the system to work with you.

You’ll get a more thorough and realistic understanding from taking in the perspectives of lots of relevant people involved in using, or delivering, a service. It adds confidence to your findings, and it helps you make stronger connections and recommendations.

An example of how you might do this is through opportunity solution mapping. It’s a tool that makes sure that any ideas coming out from research can be traced back to the objectives and outcomes that an organisation is looking for.

Step 5: communicate

Systems thinking isn’t only for designers, but designers bring value by establishing a narrative to help teams engage and follow the outcomes of research and insight. This means that communication is crucial. If you can’t communicate what you’ve learned, then people won’t understand it, or remember it and, ultimately, can’t act on it.

Communicating forces you to think clearly about a project’s main priority. And it limits the temptation to provide quantity over quality. As service designers, one of our favourite ways to communicate is through visual storytelling. This could be journey mapping, storyboarding, story mapping or videos. Telling a story helps:

  • bring insights to life
  • people remember what’s been learned
  • share understanding of why what’s been learned is useful, and what they can do to act on the insights

Systems thinking is a mindset, not a set of tools

When dealing with complexity, you need to keep your goal in mind, be prepared to pivot on that goal, and choose the most appropriate methods to help you organise knowledge and insight.

From there, you need to craft a story that helps make it memorable, and clearly articulates what the system needs in relation to the project objectives.

The outputs you create using these tools merely mark a moment in time where there was value in sorting through your findings to form conclusions or hypotheses. They should be a starting point for conversation, decisions and priorities for next steps.

In other words, systems thinking (and the tools shared here) is not the end point. It’s a mindset to help you manage and communicate complex information to others so you can reach a consensus.