Tools for Activating System 3

Michael Anton Dila
8 min readJan 31, 2023

System 3 thinking can emerge spontaneously in all kinds of conversations, from casual to purposeful. But how can we bring groups together and enable them to activate System 3? How, in other words, can we harness the power and myriad benefits of thinking together, whether to address a particular problem or subject or to create or strengthen relationships in a group?

In this post I will discuss three tools: the surgical checklist developed by Atul Gwande and his international working group; the Business Model Canvas created by Alex Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur; and Dave Gray’s Empathy Map. In all these cases, these tools were developed, I will argue, specifically to activate System 3 thinking in order to introduce new capabilities into contexts where increasing the volume and throughput of collective thinking would have great value in either elevating a practice or creating something new. Learning about the role of tools in activating System 3 will also help us understand how it is distinct from Systems 1 & 2.

Let’s start with the checklist. As Gwande tells us in The Checklist Manifesto, the original checklist was the product of a disaster. In a test flight of a prototype for the Boeing B-17, the plane crashed on Wight Patterson Air Force base, killing the two pilots aboard the aircraft. In the aftermath of the crash, the first pre-flight checklist was developed, in order to avert future crashes. While the checklist did not itself inaugurate the institution of national airline safety institutions, it became a cornerstone of commercial aviation safety practices.

Gwande became interested in the checklist framework as a potential tool for making improvements to adverse consequences of surgery that run from infection to death. His hypothesis was that preventable errors might be reduced or eliminated by requiring surgical teams to work through a checklist together before beginning a surgery. The Checklist Manifesto not only provides an excellent history of the challenges involved in the design and institution of the pre-surgical checklist as a practice, but also a powerful demonstration of how such a tool can enable new ways of thinking.

What Gwande’s chronicle lays bare is that the checklist as a tool created an opportunity to normalize and systematize a conversation between nurses, doctors and other medical practitioners designed to improve surgical outcomes. It is not simply the routine box ticking exercise of running through the checklist that creates better outcomes, but the daily conversations that it puts at the heart of surgical practice. The exercise creates regular opportunities to share distinct and diverse perspectives that not only increase the chances that mistakes are prevented before they are made, but also creates an atmosphere of increased awareness and collaboration that maximizes the skills and talents of the entire team.

The way a tool like a checklist works is by making possible a conversation that wasn’t taking place before its introduction. Institutionalizing the use of checklists makes the benefits of such conversations reliable and evenly distributed throughout the system of care. And the mechanism of a checklist driven conversation improves outcomes because it activates a shared system of thinking at the heart of the care model.

An early iteration of the Business Model Canvas

In July of 2008 I got an email from someone I didn’t know, a recent PhD graduate from Switzerland named Alex Osterwalder. He explained that he had developed an expertise in the subject of business models and was interested in doing workshops. Fortunately, he sent along a link to a blog post which explained in greater depth what he was talking about. Though I was part of a growing number of practitioners working at the intersection of design and business, I knew almost nothing about business models, either as a concept or as a functioning element of an actual business. Alex, as it turns out, had done something new and revolutionary, he’d drawn a picture of the “object” that made it possible for almost anyone to understand.

Alex had been given my name by a mutual acquaintance as someone who might be able to help him to arrange workshops in Toronto. We made an agreement and I activated my network, arranging for Alex to Toronto to give workshops at Rotman (the business school at University of Toronto) and at MaRS (an innovation center at the heart of Toronto’s university health network of research facilities and hospitals). Those workshops were the beginning of a movement that has transformed business thinking and made it accessible to a much wider population, far beyond the academic study of business. As one simple, but powerful measure of this change, it is almost impossible that a startup entrepreneur these days will complete their first year as a founder without having learned to use the Business Model Canvas.

The canvas is a simple, single page, divided into 9 boxes, each of which represent one of the key components of a business model. One of the key sources of the power of the canvas is its simplicity. The 9 blocks correlate to nine concepts, which form the interacting components of the “machine” that make up a functioning business model. Another key source of the tool’s power is that it is visual, helping understand something that is impossible to see by visualizing its component parts, and organizing them as a whole. I have long described to people the value of the canvas as using a single image to enable a conversation that allows people of diverse backgrounds, knowledge and experience to “get on the same page.”

The Business Model Canvas does not do all this work on its own or in isolation. It is the conversation it makes possible, as much as what it helps to make visible, that accounts for its value. Before the introduction of the canvas, very few people had any understanding at all of what a business model was, let alone how or why they might want to have a conversation about one. By developing a visual tool, Osterwalder and Pigneur, along with notable collaborators, like Alan Smith (a designer who met Alex at one of those workshops in Toronto, and went on to become Alex’s key collaborator and business partner) introduced a new practice called business model design, an entirely new way of thinking that emerged from and is powered by conversation.

A key aspect of the transformative design movement called human centered design or HCD is the importance of developing empathy for those we design for. But what does this mean and how do we do it? Those are the very questions which Dave Gray and the team at Xplane, the company he founded, developed the Empathy Map to answer. Xplane developed and offered tools for “visual thinking” as a means for introducing human centered design to entirely new markets than those initially cultivated by IDEO, and other early product design consultancies, who had started a movement called design thinking.

The Empathy Map is a tool that is meant to help designers imaginatively project themselves into the experience of potential users, in order to think and feel from their point of view. The tool focuses on helping designers consider and be able to talk about and share what they learn by considering how users feel, what they think, see and hear in the time before, during and after they use a product or service. Like the Business Model Canvas, who’s design was partially inspired by the work of Dave Gray and Xplane, the Empathy Map tool provides a visual framework for both recording and thinking about the experience of users in order to develop empathy for those we design for.

Empathy Maps are intended to facilitate conversations, both between design researchers and users/customers/stakeholders and among the diverse members of design teams that might include researchers, designers, product leaders, engineers, business leaders and more. Like the Business Model Canvas, the tool itself appears, as it is designed to be, simple. But the tool’s use is not isolated or limited to facilitating the work of individuals, instead it supports a multifaceted conversation between those who design and those they design with and for.

Not only do Empathy Maps facilitate conversation and interaction, but they do this precisely to create access to a diversity of thinking, feeling, perspectives and life experience. These are not incidental to the use of the tool, but, in an important way, they are part of the very mechanism of the tool. We might even say that Empathy Maps are interfaces. They allow groups of people to interact and occupy a “workspace” together, not in the sense of a physical workplace, but a space opened up by their collaboration. What I want us to notice in this, along with the examples of checklists and canvases, is that these tools work by helping to give structure, purpose and focus to activities in which people think together.

As I began thinking more deeply about what System 3 is and how it works, I also had an intuition that just as there are kinds of thinking and work which rely upon group cognition, an “extended mind” or collective consciousness, there might well be tools that lead us and help us to focus and make particular use of this distinct kind of thinking. Again, what is distinctive about System 3 thinking is not only that we do it with others, but that reveals the interdependence of our thinking. I have also come to think that System 3 is strongly linked to learning and is, in important ways, part of the story of how we develop both System 1 and System 2 as competencies. I also think that there a link to be made to what Angela Duckworth calls the “growth mindset.” I will expand on the role of System 3 in learning and growth in another post.

For now, let me say, to conclude this “chapter” on tools and System 3, that the kinds of tools I have described here, which we might sometimes call “tools for thinking,” are things that become useful or active by using them together with others. This is, I believe, both a product of what they are for AND how they work. The medium that is necessary to their use is conversation and this, once more, leads to the conclusion that the linkage between thinking and conversation is a phenomenon not accounted for in the cognitive models of Systems 1 & 2.

RESOURCES

I cannot recommend highly enough Atul Gwande’s powerful and profound The Checklist Manifesto.

Alex Osterwalder’s company Strategyzer is built on the knowledge and practice developed by leading an important shift in business thinking and making tools that make that knowledge and expertise more accessible.

Dave Gray’s work establishing the foundations of visual thinking has done much to help establish a toolkit that has made design thinking more useful and pervasive. You can learn more about Empathy Maps here and take Dave’s free course on visual thinking here.

Finally, I should disclose that both Alex Osterwalder and Dave Gray are long time friends and colleagues. I am deeply grateful to them both as teachers and peers and for the contributions that they’ve both made to making possible broader and more inclusive participation in the work of design and business.

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Michael Anton Dila

Michael is a Design Insurgent and Chief Unhappiness Officer