Systems Dialogues with Maya Narayan

This conversation is part of our Stepping into Systems series, an introduction to fundamental systems change topics and concepts. Here, Saskia Rysenbry is joined by Maya Narayan, co-founder of Holon Perspectives, a systems thinking consultancy.

Getting started

Maya Narayan is the co-founder of Holon Perspectives, a Mumbai-based consultancy, founded with a mission of developing the systems thinking ecosystem in India. She facilitates systems change workshops to better equip organisations and individuals, with tools and frameworks for solving complex problems.

In this conversation, we explore systems change through the lens of everything from Jenga to social entrepreneurship and ecosystems to personal power.

Maya Narayan and Saskia Rysenbry

What is a system? What metaphors do you use to help describe systems?


I would love to hear from your perspective, what is a system? What are some metaphors that you regularly refer to in this work?


I feel that some context is necessary, in that we live in a world that comprises various human and ecological systems that are constantly interacting with each other. And what that causes is an overlap of some shocks, be it in the political system, in the economic, ecological, our social systems across the world. And since the whole globe is interconnected, these shocks that are seemingly disparate affect each other to such a huge extent that we've gotten into what Professor Adam Tooze calls a ‘polycrisis situation’. 

And it is given this context that Holon's motto is to tell stories of social impact or development using a holistic paradigm, where we are able to help people do the right things and not just do things right. That's our broad perspective on how we carry out our systems practice. 

Now to come to the metaphors. I really like the Elephant and the Blind Men metaphor for introducing people to systems. I also like the Iceberg Model. I have a background in education, and a couple of metaphors that we use to provide school children with access to their own life and culture, as well as an opportunity to look at others, are windows and mirrors. 

A window essentially is a resource that allows them to see things from other people's perspectives - meaning other students’ perspectives. And a mirror, on the other hand, lets them know more about their culture, their beliefs, and helps them build an identity.

These are metaphors that I've also woven into my systems practice because I feel they’re very relevant. A window is the diverse perspective of stakeholders that people need to engage with within a system. And a mirror is their own mental models or beliefs that they're holding onto - to unravel and be more explicit about them.

What object or prop would use to help describe a system?


Thanks Maya. And thinking about these metaphors of the windows and mirrors, are there any other objects or props that you might use to help explain what a system is?


I love this question by the way. So I had this flatmate when I was living in a rental apartment in Bangalore and we used to play a game called Jenga. I'm not sure if you're aware, but it's a game where you have 54 blocks, like rectangular blocks of wood that are stacked up in a certain pattern to make a tower and then each person gets a turn to unlodge one piece of that tower without getting the tower to fall. 

That's a prop that can help people understand a lot of systems properties in just the way it's constructed. You have three blocks horizontally laid and then three vertical or perpendicular to them on top of them, and that's how you stack up the towers. So there is interconnection that's adding to the complexity of the structure and each person gets a turn to remove these pieces without having the tower to collapse.

You could think of those as leverage points. There can be a minimum of two players, up to eight or nine players, and everybody has leverage in the system so everybody gets a chance. And another rule of the game is that once you remove a piece of that tower, you have to place it on top. So that in some sense talks about the unintended consequence, or how the system is emerging because one piece laid on top could also be precarious and cause the tower to collapse.


I love that game. Yes, it's a very common game in New Zealand and when you're telling the story, I'm thinking of all the times you find a wobbly piece and you're like, oh no, not that one, I'll try something else. That’s a really nice example.

How do you understand how systems change?


So how do you understand how systems change?


This might be a philosophical answer: I feel personally that systems don't change, it's more our understanding that changes with more awareness, our understanding evolves, so that we are able to create the conditions for the system to behave in a different manner. And in that sense, I mean systems don't change. 

Our work with a lot of social entrepreneurs in the Indian context has helped us learn a few things. Using systems jargon like ‘emergence’ or ‘self-organisation’, kind of pushes them away because that's not something they're able to understand and apply. So we use other words that they're already familiar with - impact, outcomes, scale - and then scaffold that understanding with systems practice. 

So for instance talking typically in an Indian context, entrepreneurs would think about scale in terms of increasing the number of people or communities reached. So shifting that mindset to think more about changing institutional policy or rules, and then thinking about the power structures that are holding the system in place, and cultural norms. Helping them make that shift and then hearing it back in their own words, where typically they'd say a program helped them zoom in and zoom out at the same time. 

Or for instance, somebody had shared during one of our programs that at first, she thought that her organisation’s work was to transform the lives of 300 transgender people. But now she knows that it's beyond that, where she can have strategic partners in the entire ecosystem and bring about much more change. 

So it's essentially in what they're sharing back and in capturing those words that I see systems change happening.


Of course. It's really interesting seeing the language evolve around systems change. And it's not that it's being created, it's more that it's being discovered, isn't it? There's lots of systems change happening around the world, but the language is slightly different in different places. I'm really curious how it's being discovered in India across lots of different organisations and social / development work.


When we started off we were naive and used lots of terminology, but it would always leave us and workshop participants high and dry about, ‘okay - I get this at a theoretical level, but I am not able to apply it on the field’. 

Hence you need to speak their language - totally cut down on systems jargon and just make them understand by experiencing what it means, in cohort-based settings.

What is a definition you use to help people understand systems change?


And so you obviously work with a lot of organisations and people, like you say, don't really hop into the systems jargon. What is a definition you use to help people understand systems change?


So we can always fall back on Donella Meadows definition because it's very simple and it helps anchor a conversation around systems. She says that a system is a set of related components that work together in a particular environment to perform whatever functions are required to achieve the system's objective. 

And so that's always a good starting point. Having said that, we've also interacted with people who have a basic understanding of systems. There we've introduced something like a causal loop diagram or some form of basic systems mapping, and then taken the conversation further to mental models and a reflective activity. We talk about personal power or the power that you hold as a person, as well as your organisation holds. 

And typically we would also borrow a quote from let's say Dr. Russel Ackoff, or one of my favourite quotes for mental models is that ‘we don't see things as they are, but we see them as we are’. So we use a lot of that as well in our work.

'We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are'

What are your lineages into systemic practice?


So we talked a little bit before the call about your journey - you took a sabbatical and did a Masters of Education and you really found yourself wanting to work in the social development space in India. 

Is there anything else that you want to kind of describe as to what your lineage into systems practice might be?


Yes. So I got introduced to systems thinking and design thinking as disciplines while I was doing a Masters program in Development Leadership in 2017/18.

But even before while I was designing interventions, I always had this feeling that interventions need to be developed at the intersections. Let's say, if I'm designing for malnutrition, I need to work with people working in health and education and not just look at designing programs to address malnutrition. And even if I have to address malnutrition, it needs to be intergenerational.

Those kinds of thoughts were there, but I didn't have the frame or the tools. Then I was introduced to systems, and got to know that there are multiple disciplines, probably most of them having the genesis and cybernetics.

The ones that have really stuck to my head are quantitative approaches, like dynamic modelling or agent-based modelling - my co-founder does some of that. Then there are qualitative approaches, mostly the soft systems approach and tools like behaviour over time graphs, causal loop diagramming, frameworks like Three Horizons model or two loops model. 

What I also find interesting and underrated is the theory U approach, which I feel is more self-awareness based systems practice. And then I think things like futures thinking, scenario planning or even systemic design thinking are other offshoots. I wouldn't call them a lineage in themselves, but they are evolutions of basic or traditional systems thinking - that’s how I see it.


I totally agree and a lot of those methods mirror what we teach at the School, theory U, scenario planning, three horizons and two loops. I wonder, what are some of the different histories of systemic practice in India? Among different communities and different indigenous cultures, has there been different histories of systemic practice that have evolved into some of what there is thinking today, especially in community movements and activism and these sorts of things?


So I'm not qualified enough to talk about what has been historically in India. I'm sure communities have been doing a lot of systems practice, but they have not been calling it that necessarily.

I can give one example from indigenous food systems, where regenerative practices or a circular kind of concept were ingrained in agriculture and cultivation in the pre-independence era. And we've systematically lost that because of the green revolution and the many changes that took place in the structures, processes and methodology of how agriculture is done.

So essentially even if we go back to our structures and our culture, I think one of the components always was that, you create waste that can naturally decompose. So there is essentially no waste as a remnant of whatever activity that we do. So that's one critical thing that we've lost and we are kind of trying to rekindle.


Almost that understanding that even though there might not have been maybe a scientific or evidence-based understanding, but there was very much this knowing that there is a cycle and that everything is connected.



What are your best examples of systemic transformation?


So I'd love to hear, you've touched on a couple of them, but what are the best examples or stories of systemic transformation that you've come across.


I worked with this organisation called Kaivalya Foundation before being a co-founder myself. And they essentially work with school leaders and educational functionaries with the government at different levels. And they also work with fellows - they offer a youth two year fellowship, where they set up in difficult areas with municipal schools. This builds youth leadership skills because they are having to live with the communities, engage with the school principals, teach the children. And so this ecosystem approach I think is one success story of transformational systems change. 

More recently I was a part of an evaluation study for an organisation called Paani Foundation, which has been spearheaded by a Bollywood star called Aamir Khan. The genesis of Paani is that in Marathwada, a drought prone region in Maharashtra state, farmers were suffering so much because of the lack of water that they were committing suicide en masse.

Paani came up with this unique concept for a competition among villages, to do something called shramadaan, which is essentially offering their time and their labour for water conservation, and to learn water management practices. There's a competition at the end of this training with cash prize money. We've really seen how things have changed. Where there were drought prone areas, their lakes and wells are now filled.


And it really speaks to what you spoke about in the first example, which was this ecosystem approach and working with the farmers but also working with the self-help groups of the women. And so I can imagine this kind of multi-pronged approach really had some amazing benefits. Yeah, I'll look both of those up. What was the first one called?

How are you creating or seeking transformation?


And how are you creating or seeking transformation? 


My co-founder, Anshul, and I wanted to go back to the drawing board and think about where can we create maximum impact. Our practices are sector agnostic, so we've been associated for long enough with the education sector, renewable energy, livelihood, healthcare. So we thought, who is the critical stakeholder who can create the most impact when they learn about systems practice? 

And that's when we realised that there are a lot of social entrepreneurs in India who are doing great work under the radar. They are critical stakeholders in that they are linked to the bottom layer of pyramid communities, they have the ability to challenge status quo, to change dominant institutions. They're connected to the government, they're connected to the private sector in terms of collaborating with them on corporate social responsibility. So we zeroed in on them.

And then what we also found from our experience is that they typically look at scale in terms of like I mentioned earlier, reaching to more communities or reaching more people basically. We challenge them to think about institutional policy or to challenge power structures and evolve cultural norms. I got a very useful and engaging framework from being associated with Tatiana Fraser: scale up, scale out, scale deep framework. That's something that I really like to use in tandem with the 6-L framework.

We want to engage social entrepreneurs to understand not just scaling out and up, but to be able to truly transform the problems and the systems that you're working in, you need to be scaling deep.

And those conversations need to be had, especially with the funders because one challenge in India is also that philanthropic money has been used historically to fund programmatically, also because it's easy to measure impact that way. But then we find social entrepreneurs wanting capacity building, networking. And those were the kind of opportunities that we have been able to create, one through the Illuminate Network but we also designed something called the Systems Panorama program in collaboration with Ashoka India. That has been a great source of learning. 

That's where we are at the moment. It's given us some insights in terms of the technical transition framework, and an insight as to how we can consciously build these niches and create what we would call an ecotone, where we help them thrive. These niches are the social entrepreneurs and the problems that they're working with. We push them towards the regime more consciously than would happen organically. So that's the framework or the concept with which we are working at the moment.


That's really interesting to hear that you chose your biggest stakeholder, the one that has the potential to have the most impact, as the social entrepreneur. And so supporting these people, these individuals and organisations, to really thrive and help them use better frameworks, scaling up and scaling deep for example. 

You must have done a lot of research into figuring out where your leverage point is or where you see the leverage point in the system for the biggest change in India. It sounds so exciting and I can really feel that pulse in India. I feel like there's so much energy and there's so many different people working on so many different things and it's so great to hear that you are really actually supporting the ecosystem rather than picking a problem. You're really there supporting everybody else in these ecotones. 

How is your practice systemic?


Lastly, I feel like we've kind of talked on this anyway, but I'd love to hear again, how do you find that your practice is systemic?


So maybe at this point I could answer that partially, because there's still a long way to go. But then like I said, we started off from just thinking about a soft systems approach, but our own learning curve has helped us evolve. 

We try to intersperse some awareness-based practice into our workshops with a particular tool or framework so that there's a constant endeavour to try and make the participant reflect on, ‘okay, this is what systems thinking is, but how am I impeding or enabling that to happen’ from a personal point of view. 

So when we talk about mapping or mental models or leverage points, we alternate that with looking at our personal power or the power structures. That's how we are seeing it evolve, and through questions. The entrepreneurs are opening up with some really wonderful questions that give us further insight as to how we can hold our practice further. 


That's great to see. And I can't wait to hear how the kind of systems field in India evolves and develops over the years, it seems like a really, really exciting time. I was able to connect with people that are working in Chennai and Bangalore and Delhi and Mumbai and it feels like there's a lot going on, a lot of get togethers and conferences and a lot of really interesting people coming together and trying to figure out all the messy space. So I'm so glad I got a chance to connect with you Maya, and thanks for sharing. 


Yes, like you say, so for instance, we are also part of a network called Catalyst 2030 which has an India chapter. Given the sheer size of India, we are doing things in pockets and then there's always this struggle to collaborate more often and do things together. But I'm so glad that we've started the conversation and this is also a wonderful way of helping us reach out to the larger audience. 

So when we are able to put out some form of content such as this, I think it really helps not just our organisation individually, but also the ecosystem at large and in trying to achieve what we are. So thank you so much. It was wonderful talking to you.

Enjoyed this Systems Dialogue? Meet the rest of our contributors or dig deeper with our Stepping into Systems film series.

aerial view river class school system change teacher

Learn to diagnose complex systems with Basecamp

Learn to embrace the toughest challenges of our times: build the foundations of your systems practice with Basecamp.

Learn more