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  • GK VanPatter

NextD Journal

Welcome back NextD Journal Readers. This week a short time-travel revisit of sorts. For those looking for a more fleshed out explanation of why some leaders in the emerging Design for Complexity practice community see systems thinking as being on the rethinking design train but not driving the train, this resurfacing, classic 2009 article by Professor Fred Collopy of Case Western University entitled “Lessons Learned: Why the Failure of Systems Thinking Should Inform the Future of Design Thinking” is a good primer.

In it, Collopy points out why systems thinking did not take off and stick during its numerous earlier iterations across the decades. Included in Collopy's commentary: "Despite it's war time successes [systems thinking] never really captured the imagination of business leaders."..."Systems thinkers remain convinced that if managers saw things through the lens of that theory, the world would become better."..."But the number and sequence of things that must be done has become so arcane that to master it seems but impossible to the managers in question."..."These requirements are at odds with how we tend to acquire new knowledge.."


Lets acknowedge that Collopy's background and underlying orientation was/is management and decision theory. He became interested in what he depicted as "design thinking" in large part due to the stalling of graduate business school education in a rapidly changing world. In 2005 I had a somewhat perplexing NextD Journal conversation with Fred Collopy and Richard Boland, professors at Case Western University when they published and then tried to explain "Managing is Designing".

Of course now 15 years after the "Lessons Learned" article appeared, it is clear that not all practice leaders involved in the rethinking design movement went full-bore, down the systems thinking rabbit hole. At the time, there was defensive push-back on Collopy by some in the design community on the systems thinking train and yawns of "no-kidding" by others who saw systems thinking as one element among many already being integrated into hybrid approaches suited to the complexity arenas of organizational and societal changemaking.

Indeed, many lessons have already been learned. Certainly today leading practices in the Design for Complexity community have long since integrated Think Blending into hybrid approaches and have created Skills Progression Ladders with interconnected skill-building programs and "trial-size" modules that include basic and advanced skills applicable to the complex contexts of organizational and societal changemaking.


The truth is several of these key underlying orientations, including Think Blending, Open Systemic Challenge Framing and Cognitive Inclusion come from the CPS (Creative Problem Solving) and Visual SenseMaking communities, not the traditional design community and not the systems thinking community. This makes the story of what is actually going on today in practice a little more complicated than the two-dimensional picture observable by Collopy in 2009.

The Collopy classic “Lessons Learned” article, with its inherent suggestions did fit generally with that rethinking design picture already in progress in 2005-2024.


Here in NextD Journal we have always seen the Rethinking Design Movement, the Design for Complexity Movement to be broader that just adding systems thinking, as if it was/is a silver bullet.

Hope this is helpful readers.

Happy summer arriving from NYC!



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