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Systems thinking our way through this together

Source: http://www.activepartnerships.org/news/systems-thinking-our-way-through-together

April 2020

Systems thinking our way through this together

Posted on 20th April 2020

“A systems lens can help us learn essential lessons. Covid-19 has provided many clear examples of effective systemic action, and stark lessons in the consequences of non-systemic thinking.”

The above quote is from this Covid-19 means that systems thinking is no longer optional blog by Seth Reynolds at New Philanthropy Capital (NPC).

As I was reading it, I wondered what it might mean for sport and physical activity specifically.

The article looks at 10 core components of systems thinking through the lens of Covid-19. To help learn from now to prepare for the future. Over the last week or so blogs in our more immediate networks have started to crop up that consider the future and reimagining what it could be. See Repair or renewal? and A new beginning for a couple that got me thinking.

How might this learning apply to sport and physical activity? What is and isn’t our work is becoming increasingly blurred through this pandemic but some of the activities and conversations I have seen, heard and been part of are shared below using the 10 components.

This is by no means an attempt to resolve but simply to highlight what might be happening.

1. A shared understanding of complexity and interdependence

NPC used Wuhan as an example. It is larger than London but not many people had ever heard of it. And it is highly connected to the world. We just didn’t know it. We needed everyone thinking systemically about connections and interdependence, rather than a minority.

I was part of a discussion recently about the copyright issue impacting on the production of online physical activity content. You can read more about the challenge here. It might become a bigger issue in the coming weeks.

What struck me about the discussion wasn’t just how little I knew about copyright licenses but how it linked to more or less every conversation I’d had in recent days. It linked to quality assurance, workforce development, marketing, furloughing and investment. All areas that are being looked at separately. We needed to talk more about how it all connected. Structured groups or any sort of ordered process could restrict or duplicate conversations.

“There is little value in a few specialists trying to think and act systemically if nobody else is…and why it must be mainstreamed.”

2. A shared understanding of the problem

We don’t know yet what impact the lockdown has had on physical activity behaviours. The data from Sport England’s new survey suggested that new habits were forming, but it is still early days and there is a need to observe and dig deeper. It’s an emerging picture. Robust data and local intelligence can help guide us towards a shared understanding of what Covid-19 means for physical activity behaviours.

3. Identifying causal relationships

The lockdown has led to an increase in domestic violence. One thing led to another, clearly unintended but are related.

Joe Wicks’ daily activity sessions have got people moving in their homes every morning. Doing physical activity, but not physical education.

Daily Government briefings encouraging people to be active are making a difference. And when out on a run or walk I’m seeing more people smile and say hello to each other than ever before.

Being locked down has encouraged us to connect in different ways, like weekly quizzes via Zoom. I feel far more knowledgeable about history, 90s music and international cuisine now!

Our decisions cause a range of things to happen. Not just what was intended. Good and bad.

4. Identifying leverage points

Protective equipment for healthcare workers was one of the first factors to address with regards to Covid-19. It appears that the critical interventions with regards to sport and physical activity have initially been;

i) Raise awareness of the necessity to be active (eg, daily Government briefings)

ii) Allow people to be active (eg, 1 of the few reasons people can leave their homes)

iii) Encourage activity within the home setting (eg, campaigns and range of activities)

iv) Provide funding to try and ensure the survival of key clubs and organisations (eg, community emergency fund)

The critical points to address will constantly change as understanding improves. There are concerns, for example, that inequalities within physical activity levels are being exacerbated by the lockdown.

5. Foresight

A colleague shared with me 2 weeks ago that they are spending 70% of their time responding and reacting, and 30% considering what might need to be done in the coming weeks and months.

It appears likely there will be another wave of the virus. What can we do now to prepare for that? If leisure centres were to re-open and then be forced to close again, what could we do to try and mitigate the damage this would inevitably cause? How could we be better prepared to help those families without access to a garden to maintain good physical and mental health?

Foresight feels like a bit of a cocky word. Who doesn’t get wound up by being told you should have seen that coming? But how often do we sit down and discuss foresight? Which by definition means ‘the ability to predict what will happen or be needed in the future.’

6. Systemic decision-making

“Coordinated strategies that go beyond treating a single issue in isolation to include key causal relationships, leverage points and data-driven foresight across a system.”

This feels tough and an area I’m unsure on. Are we making systemic decisions now?

The need to make quick decisions is apparent. Are we set up and working in a way that allows us to diagnose how our decisions and relationships inter-connect? Can we quickly work out where we need to intervene the most? Have we got the data to guide our decisions?

7. Coordinated action

One example that struck me here was what has happened since the launch of Sport England’s Community Emergency Fund. An excellent, rapid response to the urgent cash flow needs of organisations that support the nation to be active. Over 4,500 applications already received.

But very quickly it has been noticed that the fund is not sufficiently reaching the clubs that sit within areas of significant economic disadvantage across the country. Or maybe it is reaching them, but the organisations and clubs don’t know how to apply. Or maybe it is exposing that sport and physical activity doesn’t yet have strong enough connections into these areas. We don’t yet know.

There is an urgent need to explore and understand this. Using local intelligence, working with the voluntary sector, maximising existing community support efforts and working out how we best communicate with areas that might be isolated from society more than ever. It will need coordinated, cross-sector action way beyond the boundaries of sport and physical activity.

8. Reflexive review

“As complex systems are dynamic and adaptive, so must be our responses.”

The need to continually reflect on our actions is perhaps best illustrated by how difficult it feels to keep up with everything that is going on. I regularly hear that this is what we know now but it all could change tomorrow with the Government’s daily briefing.

As people enjoyed the sunny weather and social distancing rules were broken, parks started to close. But councils have now been told that their parks and open spaces must remain open. Maybe our messaging needs to shift again. Reflecting quickly and reacting at pace.

9. Shared learning

A couple of weeks ago 20 colleagues from across the Active Partnerships network came together for a chat about the opportunities and challenges that Covid-19 was presenting. It was a broad and open conversation, that went in various directions. What felt most important wasn’t where the conversation ended up but that it allowed opinions to be explored and perspectives to be captured. Might an approach that created separate work streams and groups have missed some people out of the conversation and potentially key learning?

Key themes for further consideration were identified within the conversations. Collectively.

In the last few days I’ve been grappling with how we progress specific strands of work that matter most to people or where their expertise lies best, while thinking about how any progress in 1 strand might impact on another. Are specific working groups still useful? How do we create more open spaces within the restrictions of online chats, which don’t make that easy? Thoughts welcome!

10. System leadership

“We need system leadership to reboot and rebuild our organisations, sectors and society.”

We all have a role as system leaders. I wondered what I’m doing most of at the moment that might be in this territory and it boiled down to 3 things.

Observing, listening and capturing; There is so much content appearing online and conversations taking place via Zoom that it can feel over whelming. What to take in and what to ignore. I’ve found it useful to sit back, not say that much, soak it in and then write down at the end of each day what 3 things stood out to me. This is literally just a few words. Themes then seem to quickly emerge that feel like the important leverage points we need to consider.

Connecting people and content; Sharing links to websites or blogs, mentioning that person X was talking about the same opportunity and introducing them to each other via email, facilitating spaces for people to come together and talk about how to collectively work through challenges that no one knows the answer to. This is probably what I’m doing most of at the moment.

Asking questions; How does this conversation link to the one taking place tomorrow? How does the group report on what it is learning and to who? Simple questions but asking them seems to open up broader discussions about collaboration and efficiencies.

Stopping and making sense of what is going on feels difficult now. With the sense of needing to respond to the urgency of what is happening. Many colleagues have said this.

NPC talk about the need to mainstream systems thinking. Covid-19 might be doing that for us.

How we make systems thinking more deliberate will be key.

Graeme Sinnott
April 2020

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