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Last year we rebooted Plan A with the launch of Plan A 2025. It’s our plan for getting us into shape for the future – a future where we continue to meet the evolving needs of our customers’ in a way that also has a positive impact on wellbeing, communities and the planet. 

We of course can’t do this alone. If you look across the 100 bold ambitious targets we’ve set ourselves – from helping to transform 1,000 communities; furthering our work to eradicate modern slavery; ensuring our 50 key raw materials come from a sustainable source through to cutting greenhouse gas emissions in line with climate science – none of them are simple and none can be addressed by any one solution or any one organisation. These sustainability challenges are too complex and systemic. It’s hard to know how or where to begin and at some point, your head is likely to begin to hurt just thinking about it!

We’ve been exploring how Systems Thinking tools and techniques might help us get to grips with these complex situations. 

Systems Thinking is a holistic approach to understanding how different parts of a ‘system’ can influence one another and the relationship of the system to the parts over time. It has been around for a good few years now but appears to be moving more into mainstream use as its various tools and techniques offer a way to help approach these complex and often messy situations and begin to untangle them. It is a way to look at the complete or bigger picture. 

We believe Systems Thinking may have a key role to play in helping us progress our sustainability targets. However, we also had concerns that much of what has been written or exists is rather abstract and potentially difficult to apply in practice. 

Having chaired the development of BS 8001 – believed to be the world’s first standard on the circular economy – I was also aware of similar conversations taking place within BSI (the UK’s national standards body). 

As a result, M&S and BSI came together recently to explore the practicality of using Systems Thinking with around 60 stakeholders at the University of Leeds. In expert facilitated workshops we looked at the practicality of using a number of Systems Thinking tools and techniques on two of our real life systemic challenges: 

  • Avoiding deforestation and unsustainable land use associated with soy production; and 
  • Improving wellbeing, education and employment within a deprived community.

Our key goals were to understand the relevance and role of Systems Thinking in sustainable business practice as well as being clearer on the benefits and potential drawbacks. If our thinking was helped on how to progress these challenges that would be a bonus! 

The workshop was designed to provide a short ‘crash course’ in Systems Thinking for the attendees and allow them the opportunity to apply two selected tools for each of the case studies from the viewpoint of different stakeholders. Participants were challenged to initially think wide and generate ideas or information about the problem at hand (or ‘divergent thinking’) using either a Spray Diagram or a Stakeholder Influence Map. They were then tasked with making sense of these ideas or information (or ‘convergent thinking’) using a tool known as a Multiple Cause Diagram (used to organise information into causal pathways). 

Soy Workshop: Spray Diagram constructed by a team representing the NGO, Standards Bodies and Technical Stakeholder viewpoint

At the end of each session participants fed back on the approach and use of each tool. And the overall view of participants was that the tools provided valuable insight to the problems posed by the two case studies. 

There was however a realisation that whilst Systems Thinking is valuable, doing Systems Thinking is an entirely different matter. Humans, in general, are not natural Systems Thinkers we tend to think linearly in terms of cause and effect – the trouble is the problems of today are very non-linear! We all have the potential to be Systems Thinkers though, we just need a bit of guidance and tools to help us – and need to consciously set out to do it. 

Community Workshop: Multiple Cause Diagram constructed by a team representing the Local Shop Stakeholder viewpoint

We certainly have a much greater appreciation and understanding of Systems Thinking and its value in addressing messy real-world situations. If you can get people with a good mix of relevant skills and expertise in the room who are in turn expertly facilitated, Systems Thinking can be practical and very relevant to sustainable business practice. To quote one of our expert participants: ‘I was surprised what a group of people can achieve in a few hours based on System Thinking models.’

And finally, a big note of thanks – the workshop would not have been possible without the support of BSI, some funding from the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and of course our willing participants from the world of soy, community and a smattering of folks from the wider sustainability world. 

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Outputs from the sessions have been digitised and are available to download here. If you would like to receive a copy of the post event learnings report when it’s available please send an email to plana@marks-and-spencer.com