create systems not things

Marketers Create Systems Not Things For Improving The Social Good

Plenty of people, including public sector marketers, think design means making things look cool or trendy or pretty. However, looking good is only a by-product. Design is the thought and intention behind creating a product or service that succeeds in filling a need. To ensure success, true marketers create systems not things.

Use Systems Thinking

To create systems not things, marketers need to pursue systems thinking. The Waters Foundation defines systems thinking as utilizing “habits, tools and concepts to develop an understanding of the interdependent structures of dynamic systems.”

Let’s unpack that definition by using a simple, concrete example.

Many public and social sector organizations need to register people for community events, classes, and volunteer opportunities. You can create online registration sheets using sites like and An online registration sheet is a useful thing–but by itself it’s only a thing. People who register are bound to have needs and questions beyond just signing their name.

You’ll have a more successful event if you create a registration system. A registration system addresses the multiple, interdependent structures of a successful event. Such structures include

  • Promotion that tells people when, where, and why to register.
  • Finance that processes any money people need to pay for the event.
  • Legal to addresses any waivers and disclaimers need for the event.
  • Personnel that provides equipment, training, and coordination for the event.

When you look closely at the entire registration system, you see several interdependent systems intersecting with a thing used to record names.

Creating Systems Not Things Leads to Desired Outcomes

Maybe more importantly than defining systems thinking, the Waters Foundation goes on to say that

When individuals have a better understanding of systems, they are better able to identify the leverage points that lead to desired outcomes.

Achieving desired outcomes is the true goal and payoff of design. Aesthetics may be one desired outcome. However, something that looks pretty but doesn’t fulfill a need is not well designed.

Returning to our registration example, getting people to write down their name is just one outcome. You also want them to attend, to pay if necessary, to stay safe, and have a positive experience that causes them to come back and bring their friends. The leverage points of promotion, finance, legal, and personnel contribute to the multiple outcomes associated with a well-attended, safe, and profitable event.

These additional outcomes have a much lower chance of happening if you simply create a thing for registration, instead of a system.

Also, once you have a system, you can measure how it performs. How many people registered? How many attended? Did you reach your goal for registration fees? Were there any safety incidents? How does this compare to last time? Measurement is important for marketers. It supports continuous improvement and quantifying return on your investment.

Three Examples of System Thinking

Three case studies that I’ve previously covered demonstrate what it means to create systems not things.

  • In Ghana, the nonprofit Saha designed a water treatment system and business model. The system delivered consistently clean water at a price that customers could afford and that allowed operators to thrive. However, one Saha operator struggled. Other nonprofits kept delivering free water filtering things into her village, with no system to educate and support customers.
  • In Vietnam, Jerry Sternin discovered how village families kept their children well nourished. He used this discovery to create a system for villagers to train their neighbors, and then train other villages. The system quickly spread to 2.3 million people in 265 villages. If Sternin had simply produced a report–a thing–nothing would have happened.
  • In the US, a negative example is retirement accounts. In the switch from defined-benefit to defined-contribution plans, legislators designed accounts–things. They did not design a system for individuals to retire securely regardless of their type of employment or marital status. The result is that now people in their 60s have median retirement savings of just $172,000. That’s far from enough to retire on.

Creating things is fun. Often it’s a tactile process with a tangible product. You can make something that looks cool. The true power of design is to create systems not things to ensure people have the experiences and insights that you intend.

What are you going to create?

(Image courtesy of Flickr)

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