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Andy Polaine, Boiling the Ocean: Complexity, Service Design, & Systems Thinking

The following excerpt is transcribed from the Zoom event that took place on 2 July 2020.

Key points

  • Through the application of Systems Thinking it is evident that a small shift in one thing can result in big changes across the whole. 
  • Complex problems are the result of interconnected causes with many interlaced unknown factors.
  • Intervention within complex issues will typically see new problems emerge as a result. Efforts to impose change will result in a partial positive impact. However, in the long term, there will likely be negative unintended consequences if changes are not integrated well into the system.
  • It is only when there are structural changes being made to a system that we begin to see a positive sustained impact across all areas of the system as well.



Andy is a service designer, a consultant, an educator, author, and podcaster. He has nearly three decades of experience in Design and Innovation with clients across a range of industries, including financial services, public services, life sciences, telecommunications, automotive, media, design and education.

Andy holds a PhD from the University of Technology, Sydney and is a Fellow of the RSA, co-author of Service Design: From Insight to Implementation, the Doctor’s Note newsletter, and hosts the Power of Ten podcast. Amongst other accolades.


Complex vs. complicate

Though often used interchangeably, complicated differs from complexity. A complicated problem is something that can be tackled with rules and algorithms. These problems can be resolved with processes and systems (such as a hierarchical structure) with an aim to retain control. 

Complex problems, on the other hand, are the result of interconnected causes with many interlaced, unknown factors. Social and economic issues such as Climate Change, Brexit, Racism etc. All are examples of complex problems that cannot be solved with a set solution. Intervention within these types of complex issues will typically see new problems emerge as a result. Any change is typically short-term and only has a partial effect on the system.

While there is a temptation to condense and detach difficult subjects from their complexity in hopes to simplify the problem, designing for complexity means designing for the detail, the big picture, and human behaviour simultaneously.


How do you boil the ocean? – Systems thinking for designing in a complex world

“If we fail to tackle complexity with complex thinking, we’re doomed to oversimplify and produce simplistic solutions that fail.”


Through the application of Systems Thinking it is evident that a small shift in one thing can result in big changes across the whole. An example of this shift is given in the book Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows. Meadows discusses the limitations of growth. While growth is generally seen as a positive outcome, the unaccounted costs of growth can result in new complex problems. Her point being, before diving into a node, it is important to think about the larger parts of the ecosystem at different levels of ‘zoom’ and the likely impact.

From considering different levels of ‘zoom’ you can start to see complexity and the interdependence of different levels, eg. people live inside ecosystems where there are multiple services which live inside political, economic, social, technological, environmental and legal ecosystems (PESTLE). Being aware of the rest of the system allows for a more mindful approach in your design. You realise that it is impossible to design everything for a system as you only ever have limited control of the degree of change you can make. This is why if we don’t have the tools or a framework to tackle complex problems we end up producing ‘oversimplified solutions’ that won’t ignite change



What is your approach to tackling a complex problem? 

AP – If you’re not careful, you’ll get the “don’t boil the ocean” thing. Before you start a project, there is something called Territory Mapping, which is a cluster map where you try and get everything you can think of to do with the problem. Diversity of thought is also really important, and I really mean it in every single sense of diversity — gender, race, department, skill and so forth. The more people you have contributing their lens on the world, you suddenly have a sense of how it all connects together. 

Another approach is to get the group to consider the broader ecosystem and ask questions such as: Who are we excluding?; Who are we including?; What are the ways in which the service or system could be abused?; What are the unintended consequences? Importantly, how you can bring them into the conversation. Posing these questions are useful to draw out information and uncover insights or information that you would generally miss if you skipped straight to solution-mode.


From your experience what is the biggest frustration when applying Systems Thinking and the application of Service Design to a project?

AP – Most organisational structures and company structures are built on a model where departments and services are siloed. An organisation in one department doesn’t have to really know what the other person is doing in another part organisation because management supposedly brings it all back together. A frustration is that it is very hard to implement change if an organisation is ‘fixed’ in this way, whether through choice or culture, to start changing the way they operate both in decision-making and collaboration.


What have you found useful from your toolkit when faced with resistance to change from stakeholders? 

AP – One view is the Systems Thinking view where you start changing some of the things that you’re able to change. This will inevitably create a ripple effect to other areas that are connected to it and when you get enough of that going on, you actually get systemic change. The other view is around conversations that don’t specifically refer to Design or Service Design, but rather reframe to focus on risks or purpose. A lot of the time, why we do something is about trying to work our way back up to some of the previously made decisions that are currently being experienced.


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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.CO – a remote collaboration whiteboard. With this platform you will supercharge your remote and in-person meetings and workshops.
  • hacker.exchange – a global education company that is supercharging the next generation of startups & leaders.
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