Two barriers to interdisciplinary thinking in the public sector and how time graphs can help

Community member post by Jane MacMaster

Jane MacMaster (biography)

After one year or so delivering seminars that share practical techniques to help navigate complexity to public sector audiences, I’ve observed two simple and fundamental barriers to dealing more effectively with complex, interdisciplinary problems in the public sector.

First, is the lack of time to problem-solve – to pause and reflect on an issue, to build a deeper understanding of it, to think creatively about it from different angles, to think through some ideas, to test out some ideas. There is too much else going on.

Second, is that it’s often quite difficult to put one’s collective finger on what, exactly, the problem is. Complex issues, typically being many problems nested together, mean different things to different people. Each person brings their own, partial (in both senses of the word), view of what the problem actually is, and what ‘fixing’ the problem means.

Without purposeful discussion early on to establish a shared (agreed) understanding of the issue, and what success looks like, different policy makers are looking to achieve different results. It can take time to settle on what the problem actually is, and what the intended outcomes actually are, but until you do, it’s difficult to make any progress.

It is possible to address both barriers, at least partially, by spending the time policy-makers do have available having more purposeful conversations around critical elements of the problem-solving process – starting with reaching some level of clarity on the problem and desired outcomes, then moving on to building a deeper understanding of the issue, engaging others to understand the problem and ramifications of possible options from different perspectives, identifying potential levers and courses of action, rigorously thinking them through, and taking a learning and adaptive (iterative) approach to cope with uncertainty.

The challenge is to make tackling these tasks as efficient as possible and some very useful practical techniques exist to help guide a more structured approach for policy development. I describe just one of these here.

This technique, popular in the system dynamics community, helps people to recognise that different viewpoints exist around a particular policy issue. Participants, often including the range of stakeholders, are provided with a blank time graph (the x-axis is labelled with time, and the y-axis and the graph itself are left blank). Each person is then asked to ‘draw’ the problem on one or more time graphs. What is getting worse over time? What is plateauing when it should be improving?

Participants inevitably label the y-axis with a range of different things and draw different graphs, because they have different ways of thinking about the problem. For example, when discussing remote indigenous childhood literacy levels, some people draw causal factors contributing to the problem (eg. school attendance rates), some draw symptoms of the problem, or flow-on effects (eg. poor life outcomes) and some draw plateauing or declining literacy rates either in absolute terms or relative to other socio-economic groups.

The value of such graphs is three-fold. They help:

  1. increase awareness that complex issues can be thought about in different ways
  2. differentiate between the problem’s causal factors, the problem’s consequences and the problem itself
  3. start a discussion about what issue, exactly, the project, programme or policy is addressing.

Time graphs can also be used to establish what specific outcomes are intended to be achieved by a particular policy – is it better life outcomes, improved literacy rates, or improved school attendance rates? Policies for achieving each of these three options will be very different.

One important contribution the research sector can make, when collaborating with the public sector, is to help guide the problem-solving and policy development approach, and the conversations so they are more focused, more efficient and more purposeful.

Without these two things in place – efficient and purposeful use of time – and a problem-solving approach that starts with establishing a shared and agreed understanding of the issue (and what is to be achieved), it is difficult to extract the full value of more sophisticated approaches like systems thinking and other interdisciplinary approaches.

What has your experience been as a policy maker or as a researcher working with policy makers? What techniques have you found to be useful?

For further techniques:
The Ponder website ( offers 20 Questions for Strategy and Policy Design (and practical techniques to help answer them) – a practical guide that prompts policy-makers for what to think about when navigating complex issues.

Biography: Jane MacMaster is the director and founder of Ponder – an organisation that helps people and organisations to build a deeper understanding of complex issues and to think strategically about them. She started Ponder after working in a range of sectors and disciplines – most recently as a senior adviser in the Australian federal government Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and prior to that as an aerospace systems design engineer and as a management consultant.

2 thoughts on “Two barriers to interdisciplinary thinking in the public sector and how time graphs can help

  1. Good article and a real issue in the public sector. Over the past few years we had some luck with a risk management based approach to problem analysis, which is more creative than in sounds!
    The first step, and most important is to clearly define the policy objective. This in itself can take a bit of workshop and often the objective is quite different to what you expect. It needs to be specific and measurable. Then you go through and work out all the risks to that objective using PESTEL as a prompt. Quite often the policy objective continues to evolve. In the end the objective and risk mitigation strategies become the policy framework. Many iterations of expert consultation also occur.
    This has resulted in some great policy and awards from industry and government for policy innovation.

    • Thanks Jon – just checking that PESTLE stands for: Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Legal and Environmental to give a bird’s eye view of the whole risk environment?

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