When we recognise that the context in which we’re seeking to bring about change is complex, we need to act differently than if the problem was complicated or simple (Snowden, 2007 ).
Working on a complicated problem is like walking in a forest you know well, where there’s clear path to where you want to go. You need to be prepared, and look out for things which could disrupt your journey along the way, but essentially you’re just navigating a clear path to get to where you need to go.
However, working on a complex problem is like getting dropped in a forest you don’t know, in dense fog, and a name of somewhere you need to get to. You need to operate entirely differently, to find your way through using a map & compass regularly, asking people you meet, following rivers, scaling ridges, and recognising prominent features of the landscape.
This sense of ‘working in the fog’ is how I approached the early stages of my research project, in order to build ‘systems sight’ - a term used to describe the process of building a mental model of the landscape of the challenge you face. Social Labs are essentially multi-year platforms for experimentation on social challenges by trans-disciplinary teams, much like a scientific lab would experiment in finding ways to tackle cancer.
In this phase of my research, I drew on the types of methods that are outlined in Theory U’s ‘downloading’ and ‘sensing’ phases (“coming down the U”) which aim to get deeper understanding about both the structure of the challenge (history and patterns) and the human experience of the challenge (emotions, beliefs, relationships). These methods also run parallel to common design research methods outlined in systemic design.