Seeing self and learning from others in systems practice

Emma Blomkamp
7 min readFeb 27, 2020
Ripples: poem by Lina Patel (2020)

One of the things I really loved about the Innovating Systems Thinking event held in Melbourne this month was how it shone light on the humans at the centre of this work. Following a welcome to Wurundjeri Country from Uncle Colin Hunter, Dana Shen opened Day 1 by sharing principles of self-determination and co-design with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

As well as the thoughtful design and codes of care underpinning the event, we were explicitly encouraged to think about ‘self’ in systems — including our emotions and our roles — and to share with and learn from each other. I kept thinking of this quote from Peter Senge and colleagues:

Real change starts with recognizing that we are part of the systems we seek to change. The fear and distrust we seek to remedy also exist within us — as do the anger, sorrow, doubt, and frustration. Our actions will not become more effective until we shift the nature of the awareness and thinking behind the actions.

Event aims (image by Kirsty Moegerlein)

The unfolding of the event was beautifully captured by Kirsty Moegerlein, as pictured in snippets of her graphic scribing shown here.

Anna Powell’s session on Systems Leadership (image by Kirsty Moegerlein)

Led by Seanna Davidson of The Systems School, and co-created by and for experienced systems thinkers, the gathering attracted 46 practitioners from across Australia. As I set out on my own this year as a freelance consultant, I was especially appreciative and excited to be part of this burgeoning community of practice. I was surprised to find myself in the majority when we split into groups based on our organisations: there were more people working independently and in consulting agencies than in either government or community organisations.

In conversations and activities with other participants, reasons for this pattern of independence emerged. So many of us who are committed to work that supports others to thrive, and who can see how dysfunctional many of our current systems and practices are, can find it frustrating to be pushing new ways of thinking and doing as an employee in a hierarchical, resistant or short-sighted organisation. We’re longing to create and belong to better organisations and networks.

“The Explorers” open space session output (hosted and scribed by Alice Howard-Vyse)

In the Open Space session on the first day, I joined two other independent “explorers” to consider how we communicate the value of what we do, so others can find us and we can create the change we want to see. Conversation quickly turned to how we might work together differently and access longer term funding for change rather than getting stuck on the treadmill of short-term, siloed interventions and projects. I left Day 1 pondering:

What are the limits of systems practice in the current capitalistic system? To what extent is it possible to access long term funding, sustain supportive relationships and catalyse stakeholder action around shared issues?

I found some answers on the second day, firstly chatting over lunch with Tania Ivanka whose doctoral research on co-design in healthcare systems has led to an exploration of evolutionary organisations. Then in the second open space session I joined many others who were fascinated by TACSI’s work with systemic impact networks, inspired by models of network leadership pioneered by Converge. The distinct features of a systemic impact network, as presented by Euan Black, include:

  • self-sustaining (governance)
  • self-organising (not centrally located)
  • neutral facilitation (in this case, by TACSI)
  • organic growth (by invitation, open-door policy)
  • pace and progress (currently slow pace: relationship-building and problem understanding; expect to go quicker later)
  • easy to leverage (sharing insights)
  • design for collaboration (tools like Google docs/sheets)

It turns out many of us are combining (participatory or human-centred) design and systems thinking in our work. There was also a lot of interest in the ATO’s new system-led approach to design.

Image showing the ATO’s systems-led approach to design

I had the pleasure of working with speakers Misha Kaur, Susan Cullen and Luke Craven last year, including on a theory of change and a workshop to introduce this way of working, so it was wonderful to see this work continuing so strongly. As a Twitter discussion following the event made clear, it is worth acknowledging this latest phase of innovation at ATO Design follows in the footsteps of their forerunners 20 years before.

Screenshot of tweet from DMA commenting on history of ATO Design

It was also heartening to see strong interest in evaluating systems change. In addition to the event’s emphasis on ‘harvesting’ — of which this article forms one pile of grains — Therese Riley, David Wright and Lee-Anne Molony presented a panel discussion on evaluation. Focusing on participatory and developmental evaluation approaches, their discussion touched on some of the benefits and challenges of measuring change in systems, understanding context, defining quality, and responding to feedback along the way. My favourite quote of the day was from Therese Riley:

‘When does the search for a tool turn you into one?’

There was a lot crammed into two compressed days, so it is no surprise that key feedback from participants was that they wanted “more”. Personally I would have liked to dive deeper into explorations of methods and techniques that people are using in systems practice, but I hope to find other forums for that, such as a small collective I’m starting with a few practitioner friends, the Community of Practice convened by the Systems School, and the Systems Change Salon that Jex Weschler has started in Sydney.

Self Care session (image by Kirsty Moegerlein)

My main intention for this year is to slow down and hold space for myself, and I was delighted and frightened by the opportunity to do so at this event. In the self-care session that I co-facilitated with Kiri Bear, I channelled my inner Brene Brown to share a letter written from my ‘future self’ to a recent-past self that acknowledged just how challenging systems change work can be. The letter touched on some of the struggles I’ve had and ways that I’ve tried, failed and succeeded to show myself the patience and compassion I think we all deserve. I was nervous sharing such inner thoughts and feelings with professional acquaintances but deeply reassured by feedback I received afterwards, such as:

That letter! All the deep feels because it could have been me or any of my colleagues writing. ❤️❤️❤️

Thank you for that activity yesterday afternoon and that beautifully penned letter to self. It was incredibly powerful in many ways for me.

There were moments of emotion experienced throughout the event, and participants commented afterwards that the event succeeded in: “humanising systems thinking” and offering “new connection and awareness”.

Small group of participants sitting in a circle at the Innovating Systems Thinking event

A small group of us chatted in the self-care session about how “you can’t give what you don’t have”, the need to recognise burnout and to watch out for asking too much of some community members. We identified the need to build cultures and structures that acknowledge the work of care and support practitioner wellbeing. In response to one participant’s poignant question, “How do we slow down?”, I shared a poem by Danna Faulds, which I’ll use to close these reflections.

It only takes a reminder to breathe,

a moment to be still, and just like that,

something in me settles, softens, makes

space for imperfection. The harsh voice

of judgment drops to a whisper and I

remember again that life isn’t a relay

race; that we will all cross the finish

line; that waking up to life is what we

were born for. As many times as I

forget, catch myself charging forward

without even knowing where I’m going,

that many times I can make the choice

to stop, to breathe, and be, and walk

slowly into the mystery.

— — —

Thanks to all the organisers, supporters and participants of Innovating Systems Thinking, and special shout out to Thea Snow for kindly reviewing the draft of this article.