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Ramon Marmolejos, Using Systems Thinking to recalibrate your strategy

The following excerpt is transcribed from the Zoom event that took place on 4 June 2020.

Key points

  • How to start questioning and testing what we’d like to see in the multiple systems we inhabit and refrain from going back to what was not working for us before the pandemic.
  • When moving towards a new strategy you should start with a First-Principles Thinking approach. 
  • Actions in complexity and new principles should highlight and recognise the behaviour that you want to see in the future.
  • The Cynefin framework is an invaluable resource when dealing with complexity and uncertainty. The framework aids in decision-making and offers a “sense of place” for the problem that is being faced. The domains within the framework help leaders to identify the scenario along with a simple way to approach it.



Ramon Marmolejos is Director of award-winning Alkimia Learning. A learning design company that facilitates, consults, and coaches teams on strategy. Alkimia’s focus is on delivering transformational human capital strategy, leadership development, organisational change, inclusive workplaces and design thinking alongside leaders tackling the toughest issues of our time—whether education, diversity, health care, energy, or environmental sustainability.

Ramon is also the Australian partner for Kaospilot, a creative leadership and design school based in Denmark.


Systems Thinking: How do we see the invisible gorilla?

As we move into the new phases of the pandemic, there is a greater need to think about the kinds of systems that we are inhabiting and the blind spots that we have when interacting with these systems. The complexity and chaos of the world is becoming more palpable, emphasising the need to think about the frameworks that can assist us in understanding our new reality and designing the type of world we want to see emerge.

There are times we struggle to understand our role and position within the system and are limited to our own interpretation of the world. However, once you find yourself looking from different perspectives, you suddenly notice that the problem has drastically changed. As such, it is important to remember that we cannot solely depend on our own outlooks but also need to rely on the perspectives of others.

The importance of this lies in the limitations that exist when working within complex systems. Many times, the complexity of a problem can cause us to not only have the inability to grasp how big the situation is but also have the problem of inattention.

In chaotic situations, we have mental models and frameworks towards approaching problems which can create serious blind spots. Having the ability to recognise these weak signals becomes significant when identifying issues, problems or chaos in various areas of a system. This means that the models and frameworks we use like maps to make our way around the territory of complex systems become inadequate. Over time, maps become insufficient because everything around us changes and new things are discovered. Therefore, it is only natural to change the map we use in this new, impending reality and think differently about the maps we are using and how we are using them.


Complexity and the Cynefin Framework

Complex systems are made of elements that are interrelated and interdependent with each other and are typically unpredictable, volatile and uncertain. Globalisation and improved technology have also increased the rate of change – initiating more complexity.  

Cynefen Framework

The Cynefin framework, created in 1999 by Dave Snowden, aids in decision-making and offers a “sense of place” for the problem that is being tackled. The domains within the framework can help leaders to identify the scenario along with a simple way to approach it. The four decision-making domains are as followed:

  • Simple/Obvious/Clear Simple systems have strong causal effects (If A, then B) and have rules that are in place. The advice in the domain is to first establish the facts, make sense of the problem, then respond with best practice.
  • Complicated Complicated systems have causal links but require analysis and expertise. An expert will be able to first make sense of the situation, assess and analyse the facts, then respond with good practice. This form of working rationally towards a decision is done by experts such as doctors, lawyers, mechanics, consultants etc.
  • ComplexIn complex systems, causal relationships are interconnected and can only be identified retrospectively. To solve problems in this domain, the systems need to be probed so that there is an understanding of different perspectives. Conducting ‘safe-to-fail’ experiments work best to make sense of what is working and what isn’t. This can then be responded to by amplifying the elements that are working to, not necessarily, solve the problem but to help evolve it.
  • Chaotic – The cause and effect in chaotic scenarios are unclear and involve situations that have never been seen or experienced before. The initial response to these scenarios is to act first, make sense of the situation, then respond in order to turn the chaotic situation into a complex one. This was seen during the varied responses to COVID-19 and how countries that responded best also acted quickly and decisively in the face of the crisis. In this scenario, there are no set rules or guidelines on how to proceed.


Role of constraints

Each domain requires varied constraints to understand how we deal with different systems and how they can change order or disorder. Simple systems require fixed constraints so that we can understand the steps and rules that need to be followed in order to arrive at the correct outcome. In complicated systems, we look for governing constraints and principles that help us decipher the rules that need to be followed. This is so that we can also utilise them to arrive at the correct results. Complex systems require enabling constraints that help us to understand the principles that ensure risks and shortcuts so that safe-to-fail experiments are possible. Finally, chaotic systems disregard constraints as there is no known causal relationship.

These constraints are essential in creating order and shifting systems because they force alignment between different agents and provide feedback. However, it is also vital to question what kind of constraints are necessary and when to use them so that there is ultimately a level of understanding that enables us to move from lower ordered systems to higher-order systems.

Questions around how decisions are going to be made, how collaboration will take place and what the principles around working in this new environment need to further be co-created in the system so that a balance between navigating uncertainty and creating order is found.


Taking action in a complex system

When moving in complexity, it is important to ground yourself and the people around you by checking-in on the needs that you and the others have. As you assess the type of system and context that you are working in, it is essential to create a collective vision that includes as many voices as possible. This is because, while you may not know the exact path you will be taking, you still want to create a vision of what that future will look like.

Moving towards a new strategy should start with First Principles Thinking. The potential courses of action and scenarios should then be reflected on so that they are in line with the future vision. Five-year plans with one set progression will be seen as inadequate compared to working from the system’s strengths that build feedback loops. Actions in complexity and new principles should highlight and recognise the behaviour that you want to see in the future.

Further reading

To see all our speaker Future Of Now book recommendations click here.


More about Ramon Marmolejos and Alkimia Learning


About the Future Of Now series

Our goal at More Space For Light with the Future of Now (FON) series is to build a community of like-minded passionate professionals. Initially, this series was created as a small in-person gathering to provide a knowledge share for our and our event sponsors community of clients and partners. However, by switching our operations to remote it has allowed us to raise the bar, and include our global network.

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More about the organisations connected to this event

  • morespaceforlight.com.au – A strategy and innovation consultancy specialising in both in-person and/or remote workshops, design programs and Design Sprints.
  • MURAL.COheaps of new templates and tools. Sign up it is brilliant.
  • spacesworks.com – globally located co-working spaces.
  • hacker.exchange – a global education company that is supercharging the next generation of startups & leaders.
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