You May Already Have Skills for Systems Thinking and Mapping

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You May Already Have Skills for Systems Thinking and Mapping

Douglas Smith, Program Associate, NCCD
Doug Smith

If you were to ask what I do, I wouldn’t hesitate with my response: I’m a social worker. Both my undergraduate and graduate degrees are in social work. All my professional experience is in social work, mostly in direct service with youth in crisis and their families. Because of this, when I began my time at NCCD doing macro-level work, part of me questioned whether I would have the necessary skills to assess, evaluate, and implement change within larger social systems. After all, my “caseload” at NCCD would now mostly consist of government jurisdictions rather than young people and their families. Would I be able to grasp the “systems thinking” perspective that is necessary for good macro practice social work?

As my colleague, Katie Nachman, has so wonderfully illustrated in this blog series, systems thinking is necessary for any kind of meaningful evaluation, reform, or system improvement. Could you imagine a doctor trying to diagnose and treat a physical ailment without first understanding the human body and the interplay among all its systems and parts? If I was going to be successful in my work with NCCD, the ability to visualize and understand how social systems function would be vital.

I’ve worked in more than a few nonprofit and social service agencies, and navigating these systems as a worker or client often feels like a full-time job. However, because of my background, I came to realize I am more familiar with analyzing and visualizing extraordinarily complex and dynamic systems than I had thought. For anyone who has done direct service work, knowingly or not, you are experienced in this skill as well.

For years, I had the privilege of working with a passionate and dedicated team of social workers and therapists serving runaway youth and their families in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The young people we served, their families, and their lives were extraordinarily complex. Here, it was common practice for therapists, counselors, and social workers to create a visual representation of a client’s individual ecosystem of relationships. This mapping tool, called a genogram, served as a visual representation of an individual. The genogram depicted that person’s relationships, how supportive—or unsupportive—the relationships were, and any potential untapped sources of extra support.

I remember one young man who had very complicated relationships with many members of his family. To effectively work with him, relate to him, and ultimately alleviate the crisis he was experiencing, it was crucial to understand his relationships with his birth parents, stepparents, aunts, uncles, and siblings. Having a genogram of his family system made identifying the factors that were contributing to his current crisis straightforward and simple. Thus, the intervention was both quicker and more effective. It also gave our entire staff the context they needed to work with him. Through that experience, I learned how vital that type of “systems” understanding was and how useful a visual representation of it could be.

This practice of understanding and mapping relationships as they relate to an individual is something with which most social workers are familiar—I first learned about it during my undergraduate studies. Over the years, colleagues of mine in many different organizations and disciplines have stressed its importance and have used these kinds of tools as well. The basic principles of creating genograms are the same principles used in broad systems thinking and subsequently visually representing those systems through system mapping.

To improve a social service system, sector, or agency, you must understand it first, just as social workers must understand an individual’s system of relationships before identifying an appropriate intervention. Don’t let systems thinking and mapping intimidate you. You may already have the necessary knowledge, skills, and expertise it requires, whether you realize it or not.

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