Thinking like a Forest: Whole Systems Question Game

What is the Whole Systems Question Game?

This is a collection of questions that allow you to participate and tend to the shift of whole systems. If you scroll down, you can find the full list of questions and also find out how to get in touch about using them with your context, team or organisation.


Last weekend I went for a walk in the forest just outside of Berlin where I have moved for the rest of lockdown. The whole day my mind was empty, and it was full with the trees, moss, fungi, lichen, leaves, bark, water droplets, colours, autumn, sunlight, shadow and the smells of thriving ecologies.

Forest ecologies

But I had gone in with a question held in the back of my mind — how do you rethink the way a sector works? How do we shift how organisations work in an ecosystem? How do we change culture? I am thinking about this particularly in the sector of philanthropy, as part of a piece of work I am doing at the moment, outside of my role as a funder at the Digital Fund, but complementary. It also applies more widely to civil society, charities and philanthropy. The questions could apply to any sector, and any organisation that is attempting to play a role in systems change, i.e. shifting whole systems.

Over the last few months, I have been researching and inquiring on this topic, and developing a list of questions that we have been working with as signposts to shifting a whole system. These can be engaged with as a game, to expand thinking about a particular system. As we finished the hike, we sat down for half an hour to rest, digest, read, and write. I took out my notebook and sat writing the things that came flooding into my mind.

The forest ecology had helped me see new things and angles to what I’d been seeing before. The work of working with systems is informed by my years of researching and working with biological systems and the understanding of the dynamics that drive living processes. When I need insight into a systems-level problem, I will often go to the natural world.

Whole Systems Questions Game

From top to bottom, what are the questions of shifting whole (eco)systems?

To keep evolving and iterating this work, we wanted to share it openly with the world and start involving anyone who would like to contribute or join in the process. If you would like to work with these questions, send me a message and I can send you resources to do that as they develop.

Here is a snapshot of some of the resources:

Here is a list of questions you can take into your context to interrogate, unbundle and start to work with whole systems

40 questions:

- What are the resources we rely on?

- Where do our resources come from?

- How do we make decisions?

- How are we making use of collective intelligence?

- How do we increase collective intelligence? (Diversity, Expertise)

- How do we inform our decisions?

- How do we do internal sensemaking?

- How are we increasing the connective tissue of the communities we are part of?

- How do we contribute to the ecosystem / ecology?

- Where and how do we build capacity?

- What do we do in the in between space?

- How do we open source our approaches?

- How do we differentiate and specialise?

- What is our role in the ecosystem?

- How do we learn?

- How do we keep adapting and changing?

- Where do we train perception?

- Where do we build in regular space for reflection?

- When and how do we check in with purpose?

- How and when do we deal with conflicts?

- What are the things we will never go below or under (lower limits)?

- What are the things we will never go above or over (upper limits)?

- What are our boundaries?

- What are our edges?

- What are our most fertile edges?

- What are we measuring?

- What are the parts of the system with the most context?

- Where are we not seeing?

- How are we sharing what we learn?

- How could we share in ways that people engage with?

- How could we share more little and often?

- Where is there waste?

- When and how do we decide to stop doing things?

- What is the role of your sector?

- What does your sector enable?

- What does your sector perpetuate?

- What does your sector hold back?

- What does your sector stop?

- What else?

- And what are we not asking yet?

Questioning the whole system

You can imagine a fractal of self — organisation — sector and replace ‘sector’ with another holon from the system.

Sector-level questions

I’m particularly excited about the last page of questions:

  • What is the role of your sector?
  • What does your sector enable?
  • What does your sector perpetuate?
  • What does your sector hold back?
  • What does your sector stop?

So in the case of philanthropy: What does philanthropy enable? What does philanthropy perpetuate? What does philanthropy hold back? What does philanthropy stop from happening?

You can imagine going through each of these questions and thinking about both the positive and negative answers to each — for example, philanthropy enables the support of millions of people, but at the same time, does it enable extractive and oppressive systems to perpetuate, by taking care of the externalities of that system? You can go through each question and ask yourself, what is the positive and what is the negative angle on this?

The thinking behind the questions is informed by work done in the Digital Fund to prompt systems-level reflection with our grantees (especially the questions that help bring awareness to roles in an ecosystem). Some of the questions come from the work done on the NARWHAL Narratives Lab as we worked on developing deep narratives to shift culture and systems change. Some come from the work of developing resources and curricula for sensemaking, from the work of learning to ask questions at a level that shifts perception and works with warm data — what are we not seeing?, and some from the larger questions considered and held in Moral Imaginations, as we ask questions about what it means to be human, and alive today. I’ve also linked to the Stewarding Loss work which is a great resource for anyone inquiring into how to end things well — hat tip to Cassie Robinson. and Iona Lawrence.

What are your questions? What would you add? If you have any suggestions or would like to contribute to the further development of this as a resource, please write to me at

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Phoebe Tickell — Narratives, complexity, systems. Catalyzing transformative innovation in the face of converging crises, advising on complexity approaches, systems design, regenerative leadership, and education for regenerative development.

Cares about the common good. Building capacity for deep systems change. Complexity & ecosystems obsessive. Experiments for everything. 10 yrs #systemsthinking.

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Phoebe Tickell

Phoebe Tickell

Cares about the common good. Building capacity for deep systems change. Complexity & ecosystems obsessive. Experiments for everything. 10 yrs #systemsthinking.

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