Introduction to Systems Thinking Part 2

Misconceptions and common mistakes about systems practice

  1. “We reached our goal, the system has changed. Mission accomplished.” There will never be a time when you could say that the mission is accomplished. There is not a finite end to changing a system. They need constant re-learning and adaptation, as the systems you want to change, also change constantly. 

    As Sterman and Quinn put it, changing systems is like “working on an airplane while it’s flying.”

    However, this also makes systems change work notoriously difficult to measure. There is a great panel discussion of measure system change that you can watch for free with a free digital pass to the Skoll World Forum. Check it out if you’re interested.
  1. “The thing is that the system is broken”. Systems are not broken. Systems do what they are designed to do. The best metaphor I have heard to explain this concept comes from Rob Ricigliano, the Systems and Complexity Coach for The Omidyar Group. He compares systems to a cloud. Clouds do what they are supposed to do. Sometimes it rains, hails, snows, but sometimes we have sunny days. While it is raining, the cloud is not broken. It does exactly what it was supposed to do. Consequently, there is not a broken piece in the cloud that makes it rain, for us to go and fix. Instead, we should aim to “unlock the forces in the system to change itself, instead of imposing change”. 

    This might take some getting used to for us. We define systems that do not work for everyone as “broken”. However, “the education system is broken” as a statement does not radiate the same mindset that you would need to approach the issue from a systems thinking perspective. Defining systems as “broken” makes the reasons more abstract than they are. This often forces people to respond with superficial answers as to why a system does not work for people, which stunts momentum for solutions. Instead try asking, who does the system work for? What are mindsets and mental models that keep us where we are?

Calling systems broken is not just incorrect. It does something a lot more important. It stops the conversation about systems change, implying that there is nothing we can do.

Calling systems broken is not just incorrect. It does something a lot more important. It stops the conversation about systems change, implying that there is nothing we can do.
  1. “The problem is…” Do you really know the problem? Usually, when you are trying to move to systems thinking, the urge is to point out the source of the problem right away. Especially, if you have been doing this line of work for a long time, you are also pretty confident in your assumptions as to what the source of the problem is. Also, if you are a specialist in an area, you might be tempted to assume that it has something to do with where your expertise lies.

    You’ve heard it before. There is the “they don’t care” narrative. There is the “if only we were in power…” narrative. There is the “they are the problem, people who vote this or that way is the problem” narrative. There is the “it’s all because of education” narrative. There is the “they are crazy” narrative. There are many more. The reality is complex problems also have complex and interdependent variables and we cannot fully predict them. Therefore, it is much harder to predict what the underlying problems are, and even harder to predict, what the outcome will be when we change those variables.

    This topic is for another time, but for now, you should know that systems thinking would invite you to fight the urge and jump to conclusions on what you think the answer is. Your biases might be hindering you to think in terms of systems. Don’t try to point out or solve things right away. Instead talk about your hypotheses with different industries, academics, NGOs, corporations, people, the public sector and whoever else is relevant. Truly understand what is resisting change before you claim to know the problem. You could start with a causal loop diagram or a system dynamics map

  2. “It’s because of this person…If only…” Avoid blaming people. Complex problems are never one person’s fault. If it is one person’s fault, it probably was not a complex problem, to begin with. You might be tempted to point out a certain elected official as the root cause of the problem.

    Elected officials come and go. The mental models or the existing structures that allowed that person to get elected do not leave with the person you dislike. The solutions to complex issues often lie at the systemic level, not one certain politician or a policymaker. 

    You now know the main common conceptions about systems practice. I think we are ready.

Elected officials come and go. The mental models or the existing structures that allowed that person to get elected do not leave with the person you dislike. The solutions to complex issues often lie at the systemic level, not one certain politician or a policymaker. 

Elected officials come and go. The mental models or the existing structures that allowed that person to get elected do not leave with the person you dislike. The solutions to complex issues often lie at the systemic level, not one certain politician or a policymaker. 

Don’t forget to check your email for Part 3 tomorrow!

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