A Case for Whole Systems and Human-Centered Design

Content and use cases created in partnership with Lizard Brain.

What is a “whole systems” approach?

A whole systems intervention is a process or approach for addressing a need, challenge or goal that impacts many parts of an organization or a community. Using a whole systems approach means bringing together representative stakeholders or the entire community to co-create solutions that will work best for their unique challenges. A whole systems approach assumes that “the knowledge is the room”; participants already have everything they need in order to create a successful solution, idea or initiative. All they need is the path to get them there and a guide to show them the way.

A few whole systems approaches include:

  • Open Space Technology

  • World Café

  • Future Search

  • Appreciative Inquiry Summit

  • Design Sprint

  • Hackathon

What is “human-centered design”?

Human-centered design places the user at the center of any design process. A good human-centered design process starts with empathy and may involve interviews, observation, role playing and other activities that help put participants in the users’ shoes. With the user at the center, we can brainstorm from a place of common ground and have a better chance that the ideas we prototype will stick with the people and communities they are meant to serve.

Why use a whole systems and/or a human-centered design approach?

By bringing together whole systems and human-centered design, we have a recipe for user-centered, community-driven innovation. The whole systems model provides the container to frame the experience. Human-centered design activities provide the ingredients of what participants will do during the experience. The participants provide their knowledge and energy for action. Ideas generated using human-centered, whole systems design are more likely to stick and succeed than other methods because they grow from the minds and hearts of those who created them.

Final products from a human-centered whole systems approach might include:

  • Rough-and-ready prototypes and constructive, experiment-driven feedback on those prototypes from other participants;

  • Roadmaps for solution design, iteration, and delivery;

  • A handbook of ideas and solutions that is ready and available for anyone to test; and

  • Committed, motivated action teams who will work together post-event on prioritized initiatives.

Where does leadership fit in the process?

Active, genuine leadership is key. Leaders set the tone and the guiding vision. They provide the scope and boundaries within which participants can create. It is important for participant engagement that leaders offer vision and direction but not solutions. It is also important for leaders to demonstrate willingness to embrace the outcomes that participants design. At a minimum, leaders must demonstrate that all ideas will be considered carefully for their merits and potential impact.

A co-creative process should never be used when:

  • The leader has already made a decision;

  • The leader wants or needs the group to buy-in to their idea; or

  • The leader wants to demonstrate collaboration but has no intent to use the outcomes.

What do I need to think about when planning an approach like this?

Number of Participants: Whole systems approaches can accommodate groups of any size, from 5 to 5,000. The Girl Scouts of America are known for having successfully led the largest Open Space conference to date with around 2,000 participants. Lizard Brain has facilitated whole systems approaches of up to 300 participants.

Duration: A minimum of a half-day (four hours) is needed to engage participants in meaningful conversation. Two-and-a-half day to three-day sessions offer the highest value yield for bringing people together. The first day allows for deep analysis on past and current trends. During the second day, participants envision the ideal future and enter creative design space. On the third day, participants refine their designs and create next steps and actions.

Space: A large ballroom or gymnasium is preferable to auditorium or theatre seating. Participants must be able to see each other and work together in small groups. Roundtables with chairs and/or modular furniture are best. Plenty of wall space and good lighting are also important.

A Lizard Brain human-centered whole systems event. Here, the entire company of 220 employees participated.

Whole Systems Case Study #1: Homelessness Intervention Summit

Facilitators partnered with consultants who specialize in homelessness interventions to design and facilitate a one-day session aimed to address homelessness in a major city in Texas. Around 160 community members, social service providers, faith leaders, policy makers, and the homeless participated. Facilitators proposed several whole-systems facilitation approaches for the client to choose from. Ultimately, Open Space was preferred in order to best accommodate the maximum number of potential topics and conversations. Several topics were provided in advance through interviews that the consultants completed. After a brief energizer and introduction activity, participants introduced topics and began sessions. Around 50 sessions in total were held over the day. Participants captured notes on flipcharts and action lists. As a result, several participants reported that they felt like they were fully engaged. All notes, flipcharts, and contact lists charts were compiled and reported back to the planning committee who incorporated them into their strategic plans. Participants were given the notes as well as were encouraged to reach out to fellow participants; email lists were provided.

Whole Systems Case Study #2: Public Health Opioid Conference

A national public health organization brought together stakeholders from public health, health care and criminal justice organizations to address the national opioid epidemic. Facilitators worked with leadership and conference organizers to design a one-hour visual tabletop activity for 300 participants. The objective was for participants at each table to design a solution to address the opioid epidemic for a target population group of their choice. The activity was facilitated as a fast-paced design session, which forced creativity within a limited time window. The table-top template was a key element that guided participants through the process of designing a problem statement, brainstorming solutions, building a prototype, and noting key resources and limitations of their design. At the end of one hour, 50 ideas were posted around the room. Participants were given copies of all of the templates and encouraged to take action on the ideas they were most excited by at their home organizations.

Whole Systems Case Study #3: Medical Research Institute Managers’ Meeting

A state-level medical institution wanted to empower managers to get involved in internal culture change and to take initiative in areas that were important to them. Facilitators led a half day Open Space-style session in which participants identified 20 areas of interest and had conversations around each. Participants captured notes and actions for each area, which were turned into proceedings and distributed post-meeting. Forward movement was made on a few of the core areas in the weeks following. Facilitators led a follow-on working session to turn the initial ideas into actionable solutions. Planning committee members expressed appreciation for both the process and the visual tools that helped the group become a close-knit management team and achieve more collectively than in the past.

Whole Systems Case Study #4: Health Association Community Health Task Force

Facilitators led a community action committee meeting of twenty people through a half-day process aimed to better understand the patient journey from hospital to home, and to primary care and specialty care service providers. A customized visual was created to facilitate the conversation. Participants worked in groups to identify key gaps; areas of focus; and how to provide better service to patients. Groups reported out, and key insights were harvested onto a large wall chart. The wall chart was redrawn digitally and used as a guiding visual for future conversations. The board leader used the visual to spring board strategic planning for 2019. Participants reported that they liked the format and felt like they achieved maximum conversation potential through the activity.


Best Practices for Facilitation (Grove Consultants International)

Crucial Conversations (Kerry Patterson and Joseph Grenny)

Design a Better Business (Justin Lokitz, Lisa Kay Solomon, and Patrick Van Der Pijl)

Future Search: An Action Guide to Finding Common Ground in Organizations and Communities (Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff)

Innovating for People Handbook of Human-Centered Design Methods (LUMA Institute)

Open Space Technology: A User's Guide (Harrison Owen)

Reinventing Organizations: An Illustrated Invitation... (Frederic Laloux)

The Change Handbook (Peggy Holman,‎ Tom Devane,‎ Steven Cady,‎ and William A. Adams)

The Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision Making (Sam Kaner)

The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook (Peter Senge)

Visual Teams, Visual Meetings, Visual Leaders (David Sibbet)

#wholesystems #humancentereddesign #designthinking #organizationdevelopment #openspace #worldcafe #futuresearch #facilitation #largegroupprocess

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