Situational Awareness: Systems Thinking

  April 15, 2020

Internally, organizations are complex systems. Simultaneously, they exist within even larger societal systems. By maintaining an awareness of the actors and dynamics at each of these levels and using that awareness to inform decision-making, organizations can address threats and capitalize on opportunities. We call this Situational Awareness. It is one of seven critical factors to organizational resiliency in PartnersGlobal’s Resiliency+ Framework.

Get a quick explanation of Situational Awareness and how it contributes to organizational resiliency from PartnersGlobal President & CEO Julia Roig.

Below are the three main elements of Situational Awareness and key resources for each.

1. External Threats Awareness

An organization must understand the challenges posed by the complex and dynamic external environment to its ability to operate freely and without fear of repercussion.

Threats to civil society organizations are always contextual and vary in their manifestation. In the current pandemic, this is proving to be the case as governments around the world are taking measures to try to contain the spread of the virus. If not watched carefully, these measures could slide into abuses of power to suppress civic freedoms in different ways. This New York Times article warns, “We could have a parallel epidemic of authoritarian and repressive measures following close if not on the heels of a health epidemic.”

This piece titled Pandemics and Human Rights reiterates this concern and argues that “some governments use a crisis as a pretext to infringe rights [while] others retain over-broad emergency powers after the crisis subsides.”

In his recent blog post, Graham Teskey of Abt Associates writes, “We cannot assume that things will snap back to normal when the crisis is over…The world may soon be at a crossroads.”

Teskey discusses the impacts of the virus on future “legitimized” governance structures.

The policy brief, Viral Lies: Misinformation and the Coronavirus, hones in on the proliferation of misinformation about the virus and hate speech directed at persons of Asian descent as a result of the pandemic. Compounding these issues is the way in which some governments have used censorship, arrest, and the application of repressive laws to control public narratives about the crisis. The brief ends by offering recommendations to states, media, and social media platforms to combat these emerging trends.

Tools and Reports

CIVICUS’s Civic Space Monitor tracks and rates the conditions for civil society in up to 196 countries around the world. CIVICUS views civic space as “a set of universally-accepted rules, which allow people to organize, participate and communicate with each other freely and without hindrance, and in doing so, influence the political and social structures around them.”

Given the dynamics of the pandemic, it will become increasingly important to track changes in civic space and civil society organizations’ ability to operate. The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) recently released a COVID-19 Tracker to do just that. This tracker monitors government responses to the pandemic that affect civic freedoms and human rights, focusing on emergency laws.

ICNL’s other tool, the Civic Freedom Monitor, provides up-to-date information on legal issues affecting civil society and civic freedoms, including freedoms of association, expression, and peaceful assembly. The organization currently maintain reports on 54 countries and 8 multilateral organizations.

Freedom House’s Freedom in the World Report focused this year on governance shifts taking place globally, naming the piece A Leaderless Struggle for Democracy. It paints a grim picture and found that 2019 was the 14th consecutive year of decline in global freedom, based on its indicators of a democratic society.

“The gap between setbacks and gains widened compared with 2018, as individuals in 64 countries experienced deterioration in their political rights and civil liberties while those in just 37 experienced improvements. The negative pattern affected all regime types, but the impact was most visible near the top and the bottom of the scale. More than half of the countries that were rated Free or Not Free in 2009 have suffered a net decline in the past decade.

And finally, the Edelman Trust Barometer captures the level of trust that societies have in four institutional pillars – government, business, civil society, and the media. Alarmingly, the 2020 barometer results reveal that despite a strong global economy and near full employment, none of the four societal institutions that the study measures is trusted. The report finds this lack of trust is due to people’s fears about the future and their role in it.

2. Internal Vulnerabilities Awareness

In addition to being in tune with the external environmental dynamics, an organization must also have a strong understanding of both its internal weaknesses and strengths. This includes understanding the exacerbating effects external environmental impacts may have on the organization and whether those effects could be mitigated by internal strengths or even worsened by internal weaknesses.

For a quick overview of what an organizational assessment is, visit Reflect and Learn’s website and this Pocket Guide for Organizational Assessment, a simple tool to use for rapid assessment.

3. Systems Awareness

Traditional analytical frameworks for assessing operational environments assume a level of stability that cannot be counted on in today’s world. We do not live in a static reality, but rather one that is constantly changing and experiencing shocks and impacts, such as the current pandemic.

These changes inform how the ecosystem operates, where its weaknesses and strengths are, and what dynamics shape the behavior of the ecosystem. Civil society organizations must inevitably interact with whatever shifting environment they find themselves in. A systems awareness-based analytical framework allows organizations to gain the most comprehensive understanding of their shifting environments and make the most informed decisions to adapt.

What is systems thinking?

Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline, Senior Lecturer at MIT  and Founder of the Society for Organizational Learning, shares his perspectives on leadership and systems thinking with IBM in this video, “We live in webs of interdependence.”

In his piece,The Systems Orientation: From Curiosity to Courage,”  David Peter Stroh offers a clear and concise explanation of systems thinking with what is called the 5 Cs: curiosity, clarity, compassion, choice, and courage

He says that: “The systems orientation is ultimately a way of being that points to alternative ways of thinking and acting.”

How can systems thinking inform peacebuilding and bringing about social change in complex or conflict-affected environments?

USIP’s Rule of Law Program thought about this question in their report Systems Thinking for Peacebuilding and Rule of Law, which contains a number of insights that could be applied well beyond this particular thematic focus.

How does systems thinking inform leadership?

Read here to find out.

How can systems thinking help us understand and respond to the COVID-19 crisis?

Read here to find out.

Additional systems thinking resources

This working paper is a summary of a series of interviews which provided insights into how NGOs in the global South are addressing disruption in their external and internal operating environments, and allowed IIED to draw out their perspectives on what, in practice, ‘disruptive change’ means to them.

“Whether understood as sudden shocks or a general awareness of impending change, disruptors are catalysts for organisational change. This paper details the range of approaches interviewees have adopted for anticipating, engaging with, and responding to disruption. Interviewees described how disruptors can trigger re-thinking of organisational missions, business models, and ways of working; they described the roles of their leaders both as disruptors themselves and, at their best, as key players in the avoidance of negative disruption. Several highlighted their commitment to continually refreshing their organisational capabilities, for example, by bringing in private-sector experience or technological know-how.”

In the article, Decolonizing Systems Thinking, author Alara Adali from the  London International Development Network (LIDN). makes the case for systems thinking as a way to redistribute imbalances of power and recognizes marginalized communities as agents of change.

“This is why support and care are keywords which are as critical as agility and vulnerability for the social change sector. They have the power to bridge the gaps between the privileged and the under-privileged…Systems thinking has a lot of potential in achieving these goals of decolonisation because it makes it easier to confront ourselves when we end up in toxic positions of power. Through this confrontation we can start establishing healthier relationships with others and transform the communities we live in.”

Systems Tools

In this document from the OECD you will find a step by step approach to resilience systems analysis, a tool that helps field practitioners to:

  • prepare for, and facilitate, a successful multi-stakeholder resilience analysis workshop
  • design a roadmap to boost the resilience of communities and societies
  • integrate the results of the analysis into their development and humanitarian programming

On this website you will find information about Systems Mapping, a visual mapping resource that looks at how variables interact over time and form patterns of behaviors across the system. And here is a tool to create your own systems maps, as well as a series of videos on how to do so.