How to Combine Design Thinking and Systems Thinking and Why They’re So Powerful Together

How to Combine Design Thinking and Systems Thinking and Why They’re So Powerful Together

Clay Richardson

Earlier this month, my wife and I moved our family all the way from Washington, DC to sunny Southern California. In fact, our move inspired the big idea I want to share with you this week. I can see you scratching your head wondering “Where is this guy going??!!”

Here’s the big idea: Solving complex challenges sometimes requires you to combine systems thinking with <a href="">design thinking</a>.

How is this big idea connected to my cross country move? My wife and I made the decision to move to California in January 2020. But when the pandemic hit, it forced us to put our plans on hold. We had to weigh a lot of complex issues that were out of our control.

Systems thinking is all about looking at complex challenges to learn which variables have the greatest impact on outcomes within a system. So, we used a systems thinking mindset to take stock of what was important and which variables would have the greatest impact on our move to Cali. From a systems-thinking perspective, we felt the most important variable was getting vaccinated. Once vaccines came out and things started opening up, we switched to a <a href="">design-thinking mindset</a> to ideate on selling our house, getting help with the relocation, and finding a place in California.

I’m using my move as an example, but I also want to walk you through how you can combine these two practices as an innovation leader. Combining these two practices can turbocharge the learning when you’re working through tricky, complex challenges. Here are three steps you can take to combine systems thinking and design thinking to accelerate finding a solution to a tough challenge:
<li><strong>Map the problem or challenge space.</strong> Identify your wicked problem. Systems thinking defines a “wicked problem” as a complex challenge with lots of variables and no ready solution. You need to map the problem space before you can start experimenting. Identify which of the variables have the greatest impact on outcomes. What are the relationships between the variables? Are there any reinforcing cycles, relationships that push toward the outcomes that you want? What about limits to growth, relationships that impede the desired outcome? Don’t expect to make a perfect model. The problem space is messy! As long as you’re learning, understanding relationships between variables, and uncovering your assumptions about what drives the outcome, you’re headed down the right path.</li>
<li><strong>Target the greatest opportunities for learning.</strong> Zero in on a particular area of the problem space you want to learn about. Pick an area where learning about and understanding the relationships between the variables could help you improve some outcomes. We call organizations applying systems thinking “learning organizations” because they’re zeroing in on the variables and relationships they want to learn about. Identifying learning variables helps you scope out what you learn about and how.</li>
<li><strong>Run test-and-learn experiments to uncover solutions.</strong> This is where we get into design thinking. Out of the learning variables you identify, you can set up some strong design thinking challenges and start to run experiments. These experiments should be short and intended to explore the problem space. It can help to run quick design sprints. This experimentation creates a learning loop. You learn more about the system with each experiment. Every time you learn something, you put it in the context of the problem space, so you understand how that part of the system impacts the outcomes. Eventually, you’ve run enough cycles that you have a good understanding of what drives the outcomes you want.</li>
You can build momentum for innovation when you combine these two concepts. With them, you have a way to get started and to build momentum toward the outcomes you want.

If you aren't already using systems thinking as part of your design thinking program, start reading up on it. The best book I’ve read about systems thinking is Peter Senge’s <a href=""><em>The Fifth Discipline</em></a>. This book changed my perception of systems thinking from an abstract concept/methodology to more of a specific set of steps to build a “learning organization.”

Enjoy the rest of the spring, and I hope you have a great day!

Clay Richardson