Upgrade to Pro — share decks privately, control downloads, hide ads and more …

Telling systems stories for positive social change

55c226984277e7f45cd59596ddf81145?s=47 Laura Yarrow
September 25, 2020

Telling systems stories for positive social change

Telling stories is a powerful way for us to make sense of our experiences and gain understanding of the world around us. When we tell stories, we put a narrative to our identity, communicate who we are, and tell others what is meaningful to us.

Where our power as researchers lies is in telling impactful stories about other people to move stakeholders to act. All too often the organisations we work for take a myopic view of a problem, failing to see the bigger picture and it’s in these situations that the effects of poor decisions ripple out across society. What’s needed is a systems thinking approach to understanding the entire ecosystem around a problem, and then a great communication strategy for relaying this to the people with the power to make a positive change.

By telling systems stories about customers and users to business stakeholders we can widen their lense, so they can make better decisions. It is our duty as the conduit between people and businesses to ensure the whole story is told. We’ll be covering:

What is systems thinking?
Why is telling stories so effective?
The common systems archetypes to look out for during research?
How do you ask systemic questions?
Practical storytelling techniques to prompt stakeholders to act


Laura Yarrow

September 25, 2020


  1. Telling systems stories for positive social change Astronauts, nomads, stardust

    and perspective. Laura Yarrow @laura_yarrow
  2. 2 “And I float over to the window, and I

    look down at the planet, and I see all of humanity. And my perspective changes at that moment, because, I'm flying over Lynchburg, Virginia, my home town, and my family's probably breaking bread. And five minutes later, we're flying over Paris, where Leo Eyharts is looking down at his parents, probably having some wine and cheese, and Yuri's looking off to Moscow, and they're probably eating borscht or something else. But we're all having this moment where we see our respective families working together as one civilization, at 17,500 miles per hour. My perspective shifted cognitively, it changed me. I thought it would be when I did this task of installing the Columbus laboratory, but that paled in comparison to the human piece of us sharing and breaking bread and seeing the planet in that way.” Leland Melvin - Astronaut
  3. Richard Garriott changed. When he got back to Earth, he

    sold his SUVs, bought solar panels, and ended up getting himself inducted into Austin’s Environmental Hall of Fame. “If even a fraction of one percent of the human population had a similar experience, I think it would radically transform public opinion.” The Overview effect
  4. Systems thinking in a nutshell

  5. What is systems thinking? • A system can be natural

    or man-made • Systems are a collection of related and often interdependent parts • Every system is bounded by space and time, influenced by its environment, defined by its structure and purpose, and expressed through its functioning. • Changing one part of a system may affect part or all of the system Systems thinking is the ability or skill to perform problem solving in complex systems
  6. Behaviour in systems 6

  7. Systems of systems 7 Welfare system Economic system Healthcare system

  8. 8 Systems fool us by presenting themselves - or we

    fool ourselves by seeing the world - as a series of events…like the tip of an iceberg, events are the most visible aspect of a larger complex - but not always the most important. Donella H. Meadows - Thinking in systems
  9. Systems thinking is a way of helping us make sense

    of complexity 9
  10. Systems thinking tools

  11. Causal loop diagrams and feedback loops 11 https://thesystemsthinker.com/guidelines-for-drawing-causal-loop-diagrams-2/

  12. Systems maps • Show the components/entities in the system •

    Show systems boundaries • Shows a point in time of the system • Easier for people to digest than a list of written components TEEB for Agriculture & Food: Scientific and Economic Foundations, Chapter: Chapter 2, Publisher: UN Environment, pp.17--55
  13. There are also other tools… • Behaviour over time graphs

    • The ladder of inference • Stock and flow mapping • The Iceberg • Causal links • Causal connection circle mapping …But many of these are diagnostic tools…
  14. Useful and comforting, but not the whole picture 14

  15. 15 The narrative is missing…

  16. 16 It’s our role as researchers to show the emotional,

    human parts of the interconnections and links
  17. 17 17 Stories are a way of connecting the dots

    between multiple parts of a system
  18. Why stories? • Stories help us learn, memorise and make

    sense of the world around us • They are the easiest way we find to digest information, and we’ve told them for millennia • They help us “live” and physically feel someone else’s experience
  19. San tribe Namibia, Africa

  20. The plot of a common system story • Digital transformation

    project for a housing association • Focussed on technology • Shared folders, Sharepoint, tools and devices used, which depts work with who… • There was a gap between the top of the organisation (decision makers and budget holders) and those working with their customers or users. • I met Lucy and she told me about her typical day…
  21. When peoples lives depend on technology • Lucy helped residents

    when they hit financial hardship • Never “straightforward” • Sometimes moved to new, empty homes • Collecting this data using paper or digital? • “This feels so inappropriate” • Losing this data is not acceptable
  22. “If I lose that important data, a delay occurs and

    it makes the difference between a child being fed that day, or waiting several days to be fed” 22
  23. Systems archetypes (or “plots”) • Fixes that backfire • Tragedy

    of the commons • Success to the successful • + many more…
  24. We need to question the long-standing stories and beliefs within

    organisations, as they’re often incorrect 24
  25. 25 What is actually happening to users What stakeholders think

    is happening to users Assumptions and old perceptions
  26. Helping others see the bigger picture • See the whole

    system • Help them understand what they need to do • Pro-active redesign versus reactively responding
  27. Collecting systems stories • Spend time with people (over a

    period of time) • Look for past behaviours and history • Collect data to look for patterns • Chart data over time • Figure out what “plot-line” the stories fit into, which systems archetypes do they fit?
  28. My experiences with this approach • Telling stories to stakeholders

    uncovers a world completely unexplored to them until now • It gives them meaning and purpose in their role • Increased personal responsibility - the actions they do have an affect • It brings hope to those that need your help the most, and enables them to feel like they now have a part in solving those problems for those people, rather than the organisation they work for
  29. “The best way to optimise a system is to improve

    the relationships among it’s parts, not to optimise each part separately” 29 David Peter Stroh
  30. I want to reframe the way you think about yourself

  31. We’re all stardust… As we were rotated, I saw the

    earth, the sun, the moon, and a 360 degree panorama of the heavens. All matter in our universe is created in star systems, and so the matter in my body, the matter in the spacecraft, the matter in my partners’ bodies, was the product of stars. We are stardust, and we’re all one in that sense…” Edgar Mitchell, Apollo Astronaut https://vimeo.com/55073825
  32. We’re all stardust… “…I realized that the story of ourselves

    as told by science – our cosmology, our religion – was incomplete and likely flawed. I recognized that the Newtonian idea of separate, independent, discreet things in the universe wasn't a fully accurate description. What was needed was a new story of who we are and what we are capable of becoming.” Edgar Mitchell, Apollo Astronaut https://vimeo.com/55073825
  33. 33 Books

  34. Thank you laurayarrow@gmail.com @laura_yarrow Let me know if I changed

    your perspective here: