thinking, systems theory, book, meadows, Toby Elwin, blog

Systems as a current challenge

Thinking in Systems, Donella Meadows, book,, systems theory, Toby Elwin

Along the host of projects, people, and processes that involve my current effort a pattern has formed in how we deal with symptoms that, if viewed differently, might resolve common challenges.

Systems and Environments

Systems thinking is relational.

Organizations are made of components that interact with each other while simultaneously act as part of a whole.  Working with others relies on working within systems of structure, behavior, and design.

Systems theory and systems thinking relies on interface, feedback, organizational goals, input, throughput, output, differentiation, and integration.

People are relational.

A system isn’t just any old collection of things. A system is an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something. If you look at that definition closely for a minute, you can see that a system must consist of three kinds of things: elements, interconnections, and a function or purpose.  Donella, Meadows, Thinking In Systems: A Primer

You can not remove or modify items in a system without effect on other actors in the system.  As an example think of the collapse of the cod fisheries in George’s Banks and impact to that entire environmental from the reduction of cod.

Desirable Feedback Loop

When thinking through solutions, it seems we forget a team, a department, or a division is a part of a larger system.  If you think in problem solving mode, then your diagnostic needs to account for undesirable behavior characteristics are part of the system structures that produce them.

If you think an appreciative possibility set of what could be, then you need to account for the new behavior needed and the environment, or system, needed to support change.

A change in purpose changes a system profoundly, even if every element and interconnection remains the same. ibid

So, when thinking change, think a bit more of the holistic triggers in place that cause the current state.  To tweak at the team level within a system that rejects that change means change is unlikely to set.  Balance will be restored as the system becomes a symptom of the organization it is within.

… [I]f you see a behavior that persists over time, there is likely a mechanism creating that consistent behavior. That mechanism operates through a feedback loop. It is the consistent behavior pattern over a long period of time that is the first hint of the existence of a feedback loop.  [emphasis added]

An example of a feedback loop:

A feedback loop can be quite simple and direct. Think of an interest-bearing savings account in a bank. The total amount of money in the account (the stock) affects how much money comes into the account as interest. That is because the bank has a rule that the account earns a certain percent interest each year. The total dollars of interest paid into the account each year (the flow in) is not a fixed amount, but varies with the size of the total in the account.

The information delivered by a feedback loop—even nonphysical feedback—can affect only future behavior; it can’t deliver a signal fast enough to correct behavior that drove the current feedback.  [ibid]

Thinking in Systems Change

The impact to change within a system is the impact the larger system will force on that change.  Changing any one thing needs to account for the whole system.  It may not be immediate, but a feedback mechanism will trigger what is in play.

Through the systems lens resistance to change comes about when systems within, or subsystems, are different and are inconsistent with each other.  People move in different directions

At a time when the world is more messy, more crowded, more interconnected, more interdependent, and more rapidly changing than ever before, the more ways of seeing, the better  The systems-thinking lens allows us to reclaim our intuition about whole systems and:

  • hone our abilities to understand parts,
  • see interconnections,
  • ask “what-if ” questions about possible future behaviors, and
  • be creative and courageous about system redesign.  ibid

Every action causes reaction.  When thinking change, think of the system and what is in place to retain the current system you intend to change.  Look for interaction and holistic impact, an impact assessment is a good framework to help.

What are recurring challenges that a Systems View might help?

What are recent challenges that, in review, a Systems perspective may have presented different alternatives?

I will follow-up on either of the above that inspire future posts. I welcome your thoughts.

More on systems and change see 9 Questions for Developing a Theory of Systems Change and Systems Thinking blogs at Bridgeway Partners

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