August 29, 2023

Setting priorities through “systems thinking” at the SDG Summit

While every bit of progress on the SDGs by 2030 matters, easy fixes may not be the best place to focus Member States’ efforts. A systems-thinking approach is required to determine where to prioritize action to accelerate progress across the Goals.

Published on 14 April 2023


  • All SDGs need attention, as the 17 Goals are inseparable and integrated, but in each context, some Goals matter more than others to boost progress.
  • In setting priorities for accelerating the SDGs, Member States should consider the systemic role each Goal plays.
  • The scientific community now has an important role in supporting “systems literacy” and bringing practical ways to incorporate systems thinking in policymaking to support SDG acceleration.

Before the September UN SDG Summit in New York, US, UN Member States must decide on their priorities for accelerating progress towards the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. We argue that Member States can prioritize some Goals above others to boost progress on the 2030 Agenda. To do this while maintaining the commitment to achieve all SDGs, they need to incorporate “systems thinking” into SDGs and national decision- and policymaking processes.

The SDGs are indivisible, meaning progress on all 17 Goals is necessary for building a sustainable future. Because many of the Goals are also interlinked, one or a handful of Goals may have the capacity to “push progress” and make development more sustainable across many or even all the Goals. At the same time, some Goals merit additional attention as they are more isolated and will not receive that push from other Goals, while some may even be constrained by progress in another Goal. The interplay between the Goals matters as Member States aim to achieve them all while acknowledging that in each context, progress on some Goals will be more important for accelerating the SDGs than others.

Despite the Goals’ indivisible and integrated nature, we haven’t seen systems thinking broadly applied to the SDGs. We argue that even though prioritization might sound like cherry-picking, it can be done in such a way as to create far-reaching actions across the whole 2030 Agenda. Member States have the responsibility to progress on the SDGs, and they have much to gain from considering the systemic role each Goal plays within the 2030 Agenda. With an increasingly challenging geopolitical context and a rapidly changing world, decision-makers need to rethink their approach to priority setting in the next half year.

Prioritizing for greater impact

The 2030 Agenda remains an ambitious and uniting global sustainable development framework that would likely not be adopted today. Member States must take this opportunity to deliver on their responsibility to make as much progress as possible on all SDGs up to 2030. The temptation will be to do the easiest things to showcase progress – which may be counter-productive.

Prioritizing progress on SDGs that are more easily achieved or because they serve short-term political or economic interests will not take us far in achieving the vision of the 2030 Agenda and could conceivably threaten progress on other Goals. Systems thinking can help set priorities for actions on the SDGs by showing interactions, both synergies and trade-offs between the Goals. Seeing the whole and understanding relationships, rather than breaking systems down into separate parts, is basic systems thinking.

The relationship between the Goals varies in each context. Results from our work with the tool SDG Synergies in Sweden represent one context-specific example of how taking a systemic view can capitalize on how the indivisible Goals interact. Our tool offered decision-makers a number of perspectives on the Goals’ systemic impact. We found that SDG 11 (sustainable cities and communities) had the most positive impact on progress across all 17 SDGs for Sweden. The next most impactful Goals were, in descending order, partnerships for the goals (SDG 17), quality education (SDG 4), peace, justice, and strong institutions (SDG 16), and climate action (SDG 13).

While these five Goals were considered important accelerators to progress on all the SDGs in Sweden, our results also showed the trade-offs that progress in these highly synergistic Goals posed for some other SDGs. We saw that clean water and sanitation (SDG 6), life on land (SDG 15), affordable and clean energy (SDG 7), responsible consumption and production (SDG 12), climate action (SDG 13), and life below water (SDG 14) all suffered. Seeing how SDG 13 can both work to accelerate progress across the system as a whole, pose trade-offs with some Goals, and be negatively influenced by progress in some of the other accelerator Goals illustrates the complexity of the SDGs as a system. With our tool, we could show which SDGs received a strong push by progress in other Goals and, therefore, may not need much-targeted efforts. We were also able to pinpoint the Goals that would not receive such boosts through progress in other SDGs and, therefore, risk falling behind.

Based on how all the Goals interact, this type of analysis can help decision-makers see the impacts on all SDGs by moving towards certain Goals. Such information is necessary to guide priority setting to focus actions for the most widespread positive impacts – and avoid unnecessary costs from missteps, as well as balance the needs of all kinds of stakeholders, from civil society to businesses and more. SDG Synergies is not the only tool that helps leverage SDG interlinkages. The iSDG modelSDG Interlinkages Analysis & Visualisation Tool, and others provide science-based assessments that can help policymakers and other stakeholders see the whole picture while they prioritize next steps.

Setting priorities through “systems thinking” at the SDG Summit

Posted by ACASA on August 29, 2023 at 10:45 PM in blog post | Permalink | Comments (0)

July 30, 2023

How Leaders Can Avoid The Complacency Trap

Complacency often manifests as an error of omission. Errors of omission are errors of inaction — the failure to make a decision or to respond to a situation. Research shows that humans have a rather significant omission bias, as we favor errors of inaction to errors of action. Errors of inaction are viewed as less blameworthy, less intentional, and less immoral than errors of commission. As a case in point, a client of mine recently declined to address an early warning sign of mistrust out of a concern that addressing it would make things worse. To compound this bias, errors of inaction are often not even noticed. Russell Ackoff, a pioneer management professor, once wrote:

"Errors of omission are horses of a different color. Decisions not to do something are seldom made a matter of record. Therefore, it is at best very difficult to become aware subsequently of the fact that a mistake was made, let alone who made it."

Omission bias influences leaders to hold back, even when intuition tells them something is amiss. Even in retrospect, it's difficult to spot an error of omission. Without a feedback loop, leaders don't just fail to act once; they fail to act time and time again until they are labeled complacent. The best leaders view errors of omission and commission as equally disruptive and detrimental.

How Leaders Can Avoid The Complacency Trap

Posted by ACASA on July 30, 2023 at 10:35 PM in Interesting | Permalink | Comments (0)

June 30, 2023

Human-Centered Systems Thinking

A holistic approach to problem-solving starts with people.

People are at the heart of every complex human system--but they’re often the most overlooked. Effective problem solvers today know how to visualize the larger dynamics of the system while staying grounded in the needs of people. In this course, you’ll learn to combine the analytical tools of systems thinking with the creative mindsets of human-centered design to make sense of complex systems challenges. Explore mapping tools to identify the right places to focus, surface insights about your stakeholders, and pick the most impactful solutions to experiment with so you can go beyond the obvious and design lasting solutions.

Course Outcomes
  • Gain techniques for mapping complex systems and identifying the root causes of a problem.
  • Establish a shared view of the system and reframe problems from different perspectives to uncover new solutions.
  • Find the right problems to solve and pick the best solutions to experiment with.
  • Deepen your understanding of your organizational systems by taking an iterative approach to testing solutions and gaining insights.

A holistic approach to problem-solving starts with people.

Posted by ACASA on June 30, 2023 at 10:27 PM in Systems Articles | Permalink | Comments (0)

May 31, 2023

What is systems thinking?

April 10, 2023
Find out what it is for, how it works, and why it’s so important for businesses.

Systems thinking is fundamental to understanding complex environments and proposing solutions to the challenges of our time. Changes in thinking and practice are fundamental, and understanding them is the first step toward systemic practice.

Everything is interconnected in one way or another, as our society has organized itself in a systematic way. This observation has caused systems thinking in organizations to gain prominence in the business world.

A system is a set of components that interact in an organized way – one part influences the other in a reciprocal way. These systems also relate to one another. For example, departments in business work in an interrelated way and need to be aligned if the organization is to achieve its long-term goals and objectives.

What is systems thinking?

Systems thinking is the ability to understand facts not only in their own right but as they relate to other relevant people and instances. By practicing systems thinking, we are able to grasp the implications of an event for those directly or indirectly involved.

Systems thinking considers several aspects in order to carry out certain actions assertively and effectively, working together towards a single purpose and prioritizing what is good for the company as a whole. Such a “systemic view” is important for considering and enacting improvements.

Professionals who can see the relationships between different departments make decisions based on what is best for the company as a whole, anticipating the possible consequences of each choice for the different sectors and deciding which path will best direct the organization toward its goals.

In other words, systems thinking engenders a global perspective, which doesn’t distinguish sectors or treat processes individually.

The discipline seeks to understand structural elements via complex models. Interpreting reality systemically means seeing circles of influence instead of straight lines. Tracing the flows of influence reveals patterns that repeat themselves over and over again, for better or for worse – you can make a flowchart to have a better understanding of the flows of influence.

Systems thinking in organizations is the opposite of linear thinking – a line of reasoning which considers companies as assembly lines: taking one step after the other, with sectors working more or less independently, resulting in the final product.

Differences between systems thinking and linear thinking

Systems thinking allows teams to look at problems as a whole, understanding the impacts which each action may cause. Alterations within a certain company sector often affect other sectors, and once this is understood by all collaborators, problems can be properly resolved as soon as they arise.

Linear thinking, on the other hand, focuses on just one task at a time and solving a specific problem, often disregarding the latter’s impact elsewhere.

Why is systems thinking important?

Posted by ACASA on May 31, 2023 at 07:45 PM in blog post | Permalink | Comments (0)

April 28, 2023

An Introduction to the Systems Approach

By H. William Dettmer

There is no question that in our age there is a good deal of turmoil about the manner in

which society is run. Probably at no point in the history of man has there been so much

discussion about the rights and wrongs of the policy makers...[Citizens have] begun to

suspect that the people who make the major decisions that affect our lives don’t know

what they are doing... They don’t know what they are doing simply because they have

no adequate basis to judge the effects of their decisions. To many it must seem that we

live in an age of moronic decision making.

C. West Churchman

The Systems Approach (Introduction) [1:vi]

Sounds like Churchman is talking about us today, doesn’t it? The preceding quotation comes from the

introduction to his seminal book on systems thinking, The Systems Approach, written in 1968. That’s sad

testimony to the fact that few decision makers in the world have learned much about complex systems in

the last 37 years. In the immortal words of Winston Churchill, “Man will occasionally stumble over the

truth, but usually he just picks himself up and continues on.”

We’ve been “continuing on” for four decades. It’s time to go back and revisit that truth we stumbled over

in 1968. We can snicker at the fact that life seemed so much simpler then. The world has “gotten smaller” as travel,
communication, the information age, and the Internet have combined to connect people and societies as never be-
fore. As economies have evolved from regional to national to transnational to global, our organizations have grown
in size and complexity. It is nearly impossible for the people running them to fully understand what goes on
“where the rubber meets the road” in nations, governments, and companies.

Analysis versus Synthesis

Since the turn of the century (the 20th century, that is), the accepted approach to dealing with increasing com-
plexity is to try to reduce it into manageable “bites” and address them in isolation. This approach is referred to as
analysis. We analyze a complex situation or issue by trying to break it down into component pieces and consider
each in isolation from the others. This kind of thinking has its roots in analytic geometry, where one basic axiom is
that the whole is equal to the sum of its parts. Think about that for a moment. The underlying assumption behind
this conclusion is that all of the parts are essentially independent of one another.

But although this mathematical thinking might apply to bricks and other inanimate objects, it fails when ap-
plied to dynamic, homeostatic, or cybernetic systems [2:28-31]which generally include any organic systems, or
those where human beings have a role. And unfortunately such systems are the ones that exert the most influence
on our lives. We see the failure of the analytical approach all the time: The Rohr Corporation’s Riverside, Califor-
nia, plant recorded a 55% increase in profits in 1996. Great news, if all you focus on is short-term profits. When
you look at the larger system, you see the reason for that increase is better “efficiency” (meaning cost cutting) tem-
porarily had a greater impact than the 3% decline in sales. Or, as the corporate treasurer enthusiastically observed,
“Costs have come down quicker than our revenue has decreased.” [3:G-1]. (I’m sure the 3,500 people laid off at
Riverside by Rohr in the preceding few years are immensely gratified to know that!) The Rohr story is a classic
example of self delusion by analytical thinking.

If an analytical approach to management is counter-productive, what should we be doing instead? A holistic,
or whole system approach is considerably better suited to the kinds of complex organizations we usually encounter
today. What’s the difference between an analytical and a systems approach? The systems approach represents syn-
thesisthinking with an integrated perspective about the whole enterprise.

An Introduction to the Systems Approach


Posted by ACASA on April 28, 2023 at 08:08 PM in blog post | Permalink | Comments (0)

March 29, 2023

Evading the Success Trap

By Gordon Institute of Business Science

07 Nov 2022

Most companies accept that innovation is essential to ensuring long-term sustainability, but most struggle with the practicalities of integrating innovation into their ‘business-as-usual’ mantra.

One of the many paradoxes of business is that success exposes a company to the risk of ultimate irrelevance. Companies that are conscious of this risk avoid the success trap by integrating disruption or innovation into their business models. The trouble is that it is fiendishly difficult to do, and many fail to get it right. As always, understanding the problem is the first step in solving it.

It’s easy to see why success can act as a trap. While business success is typically built on the back of innovation, the reality is that when it all pays off, the focus shifts from thinking out of the box to creating an institution – the focus shifts to putting in place the processes to maximise profits and minimise costs. Conceptually, the business’ mindset moves from how to get ahead to how to stay ahead. The two can seem mutually exclusive, especially if, as is almost inevitable, the company structures itself in traditional ways.


To cite one glaring example: the typical corporate structure of business units focused on meeting targets can work well in the short term, but it actually militates against innovation. This article aims to understand why that should be so and how to put a company into a stronger position to build innovation into its “business-as-usual” structure and mindset.

First, one needs to understand how innovation works. Then, based on this basic understanding, we can begin to extrapolate some principles for how a company could integrate innovation into the way it does things. At the same time, it will become clear how traditional ways of doing business are often inimical to the development of innovations.


Workplace design

Steve Johnson’s insight about the English coffee house as the epitome of a space that nurtures design suggests how inhospitable to innovation the industrial design of many workplaces is. By contrast, the “cool” workplace of the archetypal technology company, with its chill rooms and campus atmosphere, starts to make more sense. Such companies depend on par excellence in fostering innovation.

But for more conventional companies, all is not lost – Johnson cites the work of researcher Kevin Dunbar, who filmed how work was done in several science labs around the world. On analysing the videos, he found that the most important ideas did not emerge from the classic lab environment. Almost all of the breakthrough ideas emanated from the weekly lab conferences. Everybody got together to share their latest findings and thoughts – often, it was sharing mistakes or frustrations that sparked the innovative thought. Johnson calls this environment in which different people from different backgrounds and interests come together to share what they are doing during a “liquid network”.

So it might not be necessary to spring for acid-green beanbags and a ping-pong table – the good old-fashioned conference table with everybody around it regularly will work just as well. It’s all about creating a semi-chaotic environment that allows people to see how seemingly disparate things could collide and create that spark of something new.

Organisational design

Equally important is organisational design. The typical organisational design tends to create silos (business units, functions like marketing, sales or IT), making it very hard to create the kind of physical environment, as described above, in which a wide variety of ideas, data, and interests can fruitfully collide. The silos (inadvertently) created by typical organisational designs also prevent people from seeing the company as a whole. Useful insight comes from Dr. Russell Ackoff, an organisational theorist: “In any system, when one improves the performance of the parts taken separately, the performance of the whole does not necessarily improve and frequently gets worse.”

Great innovations in marketing, for example, do not necessarily translate into innovation that makes the company more competitive or serves its customers better. One should never forget that most of the important business processes are horizontal, and that way of thinking needs to permeate the organisational design.

It’s no exaggeration that this problem of silos and the negative impact they have on all aspects of a company’s performance, not just its ability to innovate, is one of the perennial business challenges. The often-heard desire for as flat a corporate structure as possible is essentially a wish to solve the silo problem.

One way to encourage employees to see the company as a whole, as a codependent and interdependent system, could be to look at how performance is measured. Too often, performance measures mirror the organisational silos or the crude bottom line, but careful design could link them to common goals and objectives. This approach could nudge people to think about running the business better and how to change it for future relevance.

Corporate culture

Culture is a notoriously slippery concept and difficult to change, but it is a potent force in any organisation. A company that wants to integrate innovation into its DNA certainly needs to take steps to promote a culture of reinvention. As discussed in the previous point, rethinking how performance is measured will lay the groundwork.

Another important foundation for a culture of reinvention would be to change how failure is viewed. As Steve Johnson argued, it is often when people discuss their failures with colleagues that connections are made that spark innovation. One of the things that people have always noticed about the business culture in the United States, compared with that in the United Kingdom or South Africa, is the diametrically opposed way that failure is viewed. Typically, in the United States, failure is seen as a learning experience that makes entrepreneurs better able to succeed; here, it is something to be swept under the carpet. In the corporate environment, in particular, failure is very much a dirty word. In contrast, in the United States, it can be seen as identifying an individual prepared to try new things. (I suppose the quantum of failures would be important!)

To read the rest of the article click on the following link:

Evading the Success Trap


Posted by ACASA on March 29, 2023 at 11:37 PM in blog post | Permalink | Comments (0)

February 28, 2023

On the Use of Models in Corporate Planning’ by Russell Ackoff- and Why Militaries Should Read this.

Image source:

Posted by ACASA on February 28, 2023 at 08:35 PM in blog post | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 29, 2023

Herman Wrice’s War on Drugs

The late Philadelphia activist showed how communities can fight back against a plague.

Autumn 2022

The Social Order

Whether it was the sweltering heat, the rarity of the visit, or good advertising from the White House, the West Philadelphia Community Center was exuberant on a July day in 1990, when it welcomed President George H. W. Bush to speak about the devastating effects of crack cocaine. The president described how some neighborhoods had become “a war zone of despair.” He spoke with special pride of the city’s fight against addiction. He singled out children in the crowd who, he said, had “the right idea—no crack in Philadelphia except for the one in the Liberty Bell.” And he told the story of 11-year-old James, who used to work as a lookout for drug dealers because he was afraid to ask his crack-addicted mother for money. Someone helped James break out of the drug trade—a “towering mountain of a man who started a whole movement by declaring war on a crack house with a sledgehammer,” whom James now called “Dad.” This man, Bush said, was “the John Wayne of Philadelphia”: a white-hat cowboy who had spent the last three years leading hundreds of community marches, protests, and crack-house evictions in a battle against drugs in Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods.

That man was Herman Wrice. As a boy, he lived in a tiny village without running water or electricity, but he would emerge as a crucial figure in one of America’s great cities. In the 1960s, he led a community organization that helped provide employment assistance to blacks yearning to improve their lot. In the 1980s, as the crack crisis swept Philadelphia, Wrice became known nationwide for shutting down crack houses, leading community marches to reclaim neighborhood blocks, and pioneering guerilla tactics in a grassroots war on drugs. “You are getting your job done right here,” Bush said to Wrice and his compatriots, “in efforts like the all-night bonfire vigil one rainy night when 300 of you in white hard hats closed down drug action on Indiana Avenue. When you lit that first bonfire, you were lighting more than just one flame against the cold: setting up a beacon of hope against evil, a symbol to other communities in despair.”

Though his name is still remembered in some quarters, Wrice has faded from American memory since his death in 2000. Before then, he had traveled from city to city to teach communities what he had learned in fighting the drug crisis. He was a quintessential figure of the 1990s urban renaissance, when mayors, community organizers, and neighborhoods looked at two decades of disorder and decay and said, “Enough.” Such problems have now returned: drugs kill 100,000 Americans annually; violent crime and disorder have surged in cities across the country. Communities eager for solutions have something to learn from Herman Wrice’s story.

Born in 1939, Wrice spent his early years in Crites, West Virginia, a 90-person, 25-house mining village. He and his sister, Dolores, were left there in their grandparents’ care—their father was serving in World War II, while their mother took a factory job in Indianapolis. Crites was not easy to live in, particularly for a black boy. When Wrice’s integrated school bus was forcibly resegregated, he and the other black children rode to school in the back of a coal truck.

Herman Wrice’s War on Drugs

Posted by ACASA on January 29, 2023 at 08:30 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

December 28, 2022

Seeing Your Company as a System

Whole-systems Design

Much-needed guidance on making companies more employee-centered, adaptive, and capable.

Any effort to cultivate a systems orientation could profitably begin with the work of the late Russell Ackoff, one of the field’s pioneers. Not surprisingly for a man who warned against organizational silos and fragmentation, Ackoff rejected narrow specialization in his own career. He studied architecture and philosophy and pioneered operations research before joining the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1960s, where he taught systems sciences and management. After leaving Wharton in 1986, Ackoff worked as an independent consultant until his death in October 2009.

Ackoff drew a clear distinction between the machine age, in which companies could assume relative stability and seek optimum solutions to discrete problems, and the systems age, beginning after World War II, a time of growing global and technological complexity. Organizations would henceforth have to deal with “sets of interacting problems” and give up the quixotic search for simple solutions that could be applied consistently. The key challenge, Ackoff said, would be designing systems that would learn and adapt. In a talk he frequently gave on “the second industrial revolution,” he said, “Experience is not the best teacher; it is not even a good teacher. It is too slow, too imprecise, and too ambiguous.” Organizations would have to learn and adapt through experimentation, which he said “is faster, more precise, and less ambiguous. We have to design systems which are managed experimentally, as opposed to experientially.” To accomplish this, he laid out a method of interactive planning, which involved an “idealized design of the organization” — a technologically feasible future that reflected how key stakeholders would redesign and rebuild a system if it were suddenly destroyed.

Seeing Your Company as a System

Posted by ACASA on December 28, 2022 at 11:05 PM in Classics | Permalink | Comments (0)

November 30, 2022

In a data-led world, intuition still matters

A new book argues that the best decision-makers combine good data with sound judgment.


Decisions Over Decimals: Striking the Balance between Intuition and Information

by Christopher Frank, Paul Magnone, and Oded Netzer (Wiley, 2022)

For as long as there have been decisions, people have used facts (lately known as data) to make them, along with reason and intuition. Nowadays, though, data often seems to be making decisions for us. Just as ‘analytics’ has changed the face of sports, business data prompts computers to order products, cut prices, or take other actions that once required human thought and intervention.

But data needs people just as much as people need data. Business leaders must decide whether to launch a new product line, expand into a new continent, buy or sell a business, or change a venerable logo. So how can managers use the torrent of data available to them to make the best decisions? That is the timely subject of Decisions Over Decimals, a concise guide to decision-making in the age of analytics written by Christopher Frank, Paul Magnone, and Oded Netzer, a trio of business veterans associated with Columbia University (as well as American Express, Google, and Amazon, respectively).

“The challenge in today’s world is not the lack of information but the judgment to use it,” they write. Data-based decision-making is unavoidable but comes with risks: “Data and numbers tend to provide the comfortable feeling of accuracy and certainty, but they rarely tell us the full story. Numbers alone can never provide a perfect solution or answer, and they will never immunize decision-makers from faltering.”

What business leaders need, the authors argue, are techniques for combining good data with sound judgment. Over the years, they’ve developed an approach called Quantitative Intuition (QI) to help executives make informed choices. And they are convinced that QI, oxymoronic as it may sound, can be learned. “Combining quantitative information with intuition—human judgment developed through experience and close observation—is indispensable.”

In its broadest outlines, QI doesn’t look different from what any sensible person would do to make a decision. But as the authors walk us through their process chapter by chapter, various valuable insights, large and small, emerge.

For example, they cite the late organizational theorist Russell Ackoff’s observation that “we fail more often because we solve the wrong problem than because we get the wrong solution to the right problem.” They point out that you don’t know what data you need until you properly frame what you’re trying to decide. The data can only take you so far on this essential question because you have a view of the broader business landscape, including, of course, the complexity of your own business. “Don’t expect the data to provide both the questions and the answers,” the authors warn. “It is your responsibility to home in on the essential question and then combine data with intuition to identify the answers.”

Because the authors consider clarifying the problem significantly, they believe it’s worth senior management investing time to do so upfront, saving time and error for everyone later. “Why?” questions, asked of subordinates in a near childlike fashion, can help in problem-defining. Why do you want to conduct such a study? Oh, to know customers better. Great, but why do we want to know them better just now? And so forth, leading eventually to the real issue at stake.

In a data-led world, intuition still matters


Posted by ACASA on November 30, 2022 at 06:50 PM in blog post | Permalink | Comments (0)