How systemic design really works

Aug 2022
Murray Stubbs

At Snowmelt, we consider systemic design as a mindset and process. Rather than rushing into ‘solution mode’, systemic design moves thinking and conversations upstream to understand the potential causes and relevant context of a challenge or situation. This learning is best done in groups that bring a variety of relevant perspectives together. New perspectives create options to address or prevent undesirable situations and clearer pathways toward preferred outcomes.

It’s a reflective and action-oriented practice of collectively considering questions like:

  • What’s really going on here?
  • How should we define this problem?
  • Which relationships are the most important?
  • What else do we need to consider?
  • How might this situation change over time?
  • What are the risks and opportunities?
  • What should we do?
  • Who do we need to involve in the process of decision making?
  • What would have the best chance of success?
  • If we take this option, what might be the consequences?

To answer these valuable context-setting questions, projects can involve a variety of research and detailed engagements with internal and external stakeholders. These can take place in individual interviews or collaborative workshops. For example, it might involve talking to those who will be managing or creating the change in the system, those who are affected by the current configuration of the system, or those who will be affected by the outcome. It is an engaging and collaborative process.

The information gathered is not strictly qualitative or quantitative, as it draws from data and insight from multiple sources to inform the decision and tell the story to those impacted. Knowledge about the challenge is shaped by focused research, those collaborating in the process, or the individuals engaged for their perspective.

To help people think together, systemic design often involves building visual representations of systems. These might be pictures of operating models, ecosystems or value chains. Single, shared frames of reference that can be touched, discussed and changed in conversation are powerful tools to ensure alignment and accelerate decision-making.

A stylised example of a system map we use to communicate and talk about a business.

Regardless of the process, outcomes are essential. At Snowmelt, we begin with the end in mind. Firstly, we consider the target outputs such as strategies, frameworks for decision making, process documentation, increases in productivity or changes in perspective. Once defined, we define a program of activities to realise them.

It is rare to have perfect information, especially at the beginning of a process. Accordingly, systemic design processes are adaptive and change as new information comes to light. Over time, research might reveal a more significant or pressing issue that merits more attention than the original challenge. As new knowledge emerges, it’s possible to change the approach in-process to reprioritise the activities to get to the most useful outcomes. Projects can vary greatly in effort and duration, depending on the requirements and ambition of the client or stakeholders involved.

Ultimately, the focus should always be on creating the right artefacts in service of the right goals, rather than the artefacts and goals as initially planned at the beginning of the project.


For a broad set of resources on systemic design explore the library of the annual Relating Systems Thinking and Design Conference. Also take a look at the Systemic Design Toolkit and Design Journeys Through Complex Systems: Practice Tools for Systemic Design to try out some of the activities in your own projects.

Cover image: A workshop run by Snowmelt and Conic Group at the Relating Systems Thinking and Design conference in Chicago 2019.

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