Systems Thinking Helped This Small Gallery Uncover Hidden Patterns

Watch this video about how systems thinking strategies helped SPACES Gallery think differently about cultivating individual donor relationships.

 

What is the Systems Thinking Leadership Lab?

In late 2013, Cleveland arts leaders worked with EmcArts facilitator John Shibley to explore systems thinking. These small groups of leaders, whose organizations were part of Engaging the Future (a program of EmcArts and the Cleveland Foundation), each identified a complex organizational challenge to explore over the span of the program’s four months. They joined together for a two-day workshop, four half-day clinics, and regular phone coaching sessions to dig deeper into some of the core strategies behind systems thinking, and to work together on some of their most complex organizational challenges.

In the video above, EmcArts facilitator John Shibley and SPACES Gallery‘s Development Director/Interim Director Martha Loughridge discuss one case study. SPACES Gallery’s challenge was to understand how they might better cultivate relationships with individual donors. Through identifying interconnected factors (i.e. staff time spent on supporting grants, participation of board members) in their fundraising system, SPACES was able to build a systems dynamics map that helped develop new practices.

What is systems thinking and why is it useful?

Thinking in systems can help leaders grasp the big picture of organizational operations and behaviors. It’s a disciplined approach to understanding the complex web of cause and effect that contributes to most organizational behavior, and for identifying organizational behavioral patterns.

An understanding of systems thinking dynamics and processes can help leaders to see new aspects of their organization’s influence, and what influences their organization in turn. Of particular importance is identifying leverage points — places to intervene in the systems where small changes can have big results — and understanding how delays in a system can result in actions having unintended consequences, often directly opposite from those intended.

Resources on systems thinking

John has shared two of his publications:

The first, “Making Maps: A Method for Drawing System Maps” is a very detailed, step-by-step recipe for going from a story to a complex system map of a situation. Download it here.

The second, “A Practice Theory for Organizational Learning,” was originally published in The Systems Thinker, and describes when to use a systems thinking approach in problem solving. Download it here.

Additionally, we encourage you to explore some of our past posts that focus on systems thinking. And, if these resources are useful, please let us know! We’re eager to learn about the ways you are incorporating systems thinking strategies into your work.

  • What is Systems Thinking? The EmcArts staff gathered for a lunch discussion one day to understand the basics of systems thinking and why it is useful.
  • Activity: Triangles: Use this systems thinking activity to explore the web of cause and effect that contributes to organizational behavior.
About
Karina Mangu-Ward is the Director of Strategic Initiatives at EmcArts.

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  • Kerry Huang

    I love this case study. It’s an elegant application of systems thinking to a tangible problem. I do wonder, though, about an underlining issue of this particular case that wasn’t addressed in the case study: if one spends more time on donor cultivation, then does one end up spending less time on grant writing, which then leads to less success with receiving grants?

    In general, I think that’s a primary fear of organizational leaders — if we spend our time working on something new, it will take time away from our doing something tried and true. Only when there’s a problem (ie. decreasing funding or audience) or an incentive (ie. new grant or revenue opportunity), are we more inclined to pivot to doing something else.

    I suppose that’s human nature. If something works, even if it’s not optimal, we tend to overlook its flaws. We usually don’t respond until there’s a catalyst, either positive or negative.

    Question is, is there a way to shift thinking and practice even when things are humming along, before it breaks?

  • Bermet Jamankulova

    Hello, what a wonderful illustration of systems thinking at work! I especially loved the ‘stuck’ part. What I don’t understand is why do you want to cultivate individual relationships if your grantseeking practice is successful? Thanks!