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How systems thinking helps us understand the COVID-19 pandemic

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Missing Puzzle Piece Of Big Picture

The COVID-19 pandemic is one of the most complex global problems facing us today, with considerable impacts on our way of life. For project professionals, it is certainly a thought-provoking situation – one that is forcing change at a rate normally seen only in wartime.

The pandemic brought together several members of the APM Systems Thinking SIG to form the COVID-19 Working Group. The group has sought to understand what is happening using systems thinking techniques.

Why we needed the working group

The standard view of the COVID-19 pandemic is purely reductionist and doesn’t help us understand the situation. It gives a version of the whole picture, but it decomposes the situation into unlinked elements. This analysis is not useful in understanding the challenges, as it does not represent the relationships between the elements or discover where the leverage points might be.

The working group wanted to demonstrate how quickly and easily systems thinking can give insights into complex situations. We also wanted to investigate the insights that a single tool, a causal loop diagram (CLD), can give into the situation and demonstrate to ourselves and others that using systems thinking tools is quick and easy for project professionals.

The main approach

A CLD represents the causal relationships between system elements and identifies reinforcing and balancing processes. CLDs are valuable in various areas, especially for understanding consequences, eg in risk management. Other potential areas in which a CLD is useful include benefits management, issue management and strategic planning.

The working group developed a CLD for the COVID-19 pandemic scope in a UK context. The framework settled quite quickly, with details then being added. After that, the topic areas were identified and added to the diagram. The group adopted an incremental and collaborative approach, even though none of its members have worked together physically, instead having regular virtual workshops.

Among the key principles when working on this task were:

  • resisting the urge to drill down and lose sight of the bigger picture; 
  • resisting the urge to jump to quick conclusions;
  • not making make simplifying assumptions; and 
  • considering each other’s perspectives. 

Finding patterns

The next step was to look for so-called systems archetypes – recurring patterns of cause and effect behaviour common to many situations. One of the systems archetypes identified on the CLD during this exercise was ‘shifting the burden’. It describes a situation when a fix, effective in the short term, has unforeseen long-term consequences that may require even more use of the same fix:

  • The short term ‘fix’ is to enter lockdown to reduce the spread of infection and use government spending to support business and personal income. This increases the government deficit.
  • However, after the lockdown is relaxed (without further measures to reduce the spread of infection), the infection returns and further lockdowns are applied. Again, business and personal income support are provided and the government deficit increases. 
  • The burden is shifted to the government deficit rather than resolving the problem of infection spread.

How systems thinking helped us understand the crisis

Systems thinking helped us to better understand the problems in terms of the complexity of the relationships between their components and how these impact one another. By better understanding the causes and effects of a problem, one can devise more effective and efficient solutions.

The most generally useful insights from this exercise:

  • High levels of interconnectedness mean one must keep a view of the big picture – in other words, look at the individual trees and the whole forest, all at the same time.
  • Deep impact assessment is needed to uncover unexpected and unpleasant consequences – don’t jump to knee-jerk reactions.
  • Look for patterns that can be addressed; use existing knowledge like systems archetypes to reuse history, but avoid assuming previously successful responses will work. 

Lessons learnt

The Systems Thinking SIG conducted this exercise to inspire others to use systems thinking and to show that this discipline can be applied to complex problems without causing significant delays or costs. Developing a CLD encourages collaborative working and is an efficient way to get people involved, regardless of their experience with this tool, and shows how action on a variable could impact other directly or indirectly linked variables (cause/effect relationships).

This exercise proved that a CLD certainly helps to identify subject areas or variables that might otherwise be overlooked or missed. It also helps us be better prepared for the emergent aspects of complex systems. 

To learn more please watch the recorded webinar on the APM Youtube channel.

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