Systems principles for a pandemic

Earlier in April, SIX wrapped up our second of two trainings with one of the largest independent grant making foundations in England. Over six months, we worked with two cohorts of individuals to explore what social innovation and systems thinking looks like in context and in practice.

What were we designing for?

We believe that funders and foundation staff benefit from systems thinking and social innovation. We’ve  always believed that and have written about it for years, but now – during a global pandemic – it takes on sharp focus. Many of our friends and collaborators have also offered similar exercises that share the same fundamental belief and even urgency.

Our value is in providing reflective and often fairly unconventional spaces, in order to build the kinds of relationships and conversations that create the enabling conditions for change. When SIX designs anything that involves people (read: everything), we mainly focus on how to change thinking (through reflective work), behaving (uncovering habits and practices) and relating (visualising complex relationships and flows). Because these are what make meaningful change stick.

This approach is at the heart of social innovation, and has been built over ten years of designing experiences that leave a legacy, set future direction and bring the most (and the best) out of people and communities. Partly, the magic is in our choice of space: gathering in unique or intimate environments. But recently, like most of our peers, we’ve had to radically rethink how to facilitate deep work in a fully virtual environment.

Blending of boundaries in the system

During our second cohort, we were thrown into the pandemic’s new requirements for remote work and physical distance – hardly the message of togetherness we had been building up to! The team we were working with had to start working from home and expressed loss around the coffee chats, quick check-ins and small gestures from colleagues that made the world of work more human and enjoyable.

The sudden blend of home and work life was disconcerting but also felt like a full circle from the first session in which we asked participants to draw their origins stories: images that represented the moments and people in their lives that had shaped and influenced them, alongside descriptions of what matters to them now. What emerged from those early discussions was how seemingly separate phases of life had in many cases shaped their motivations to keep doing the work they do. 

The separation between our offices and our homes can feel important for our wellbeing. Equally though, the blend is more superficial than we’d like to believe. The same is true of systems, whereby the boundaries within the system are just there to help us make sense of complexity, but aren’t necessarily where one thing starts and another stops. Our lives, like our systems, are more porous.

Uncertainty and emergence in unprecedented times

This is hard. Boundaries give us much required senses of safety and predictability. Trying to live in a world as we’ve never known it, many of us have plunged into the anxiety that often accompanies unknown territory. 

Managing uncertainty has become crucial for the world as it is today – a skill that is noticeably more familiar amongst younger generations. Systems thinkers have long known that the dynamics in complex environments are unknown (or unseen) before, during and even after any changes have taken place. In other words, systems are not just emergent, they are elusive and rarely predictable.

This felt like an important message to shine a light on during our virtual training, both as facilitators who had to redesign for the new context, and as participants who might have felt that now more than ever, the systems lens is a helpful way to read the world. We gave space and time for new emerging questions like, “how does systems thinking become useful in the world today?” and “how does this situation make us think differently about our work?”


There have been countless articles that describe the ways in which COVID-19 has blatantly surfaced our interconnectedness, the fragility of our species (both because of and without others), and our reliance on each other to abide by the rules and to care.

Systems thinking often involves mapping out complexities and relationships. First, in circles and clusters, then with interconnecting lines and labels which tell us how everything relates, how some things block or enable certain processes, and where power, tension or opportunity lies. We can even overlay these maps with particular issues or topics that help us see how dynamics play out in specific projects.

Those activities were done earlier on, in a physical space. But the analysis came up again online with participants. They shared how it had helped them to see their colleagues and their roles differently and new realisations about what small actions could be possible to signal desired changes across a myriad of different connections.

The Five People You Meet in Heaven

Systems principles for a virtual environment and for a pandemic made me think of a quote from my favourite book by Mitch Albom called, ‘The Five People you meet in Heaven’. It says, “one thing affects the other, and the other affects the next, and the world is full of stories, and the stories are all one.’

If you would like to know more or are interested in working with us on the Systems Thinking in Context and Practice training for foundations and other ecosystem players, please do get in touch with us through