Stop solving problems, start creating healthier systems

Systems thinking is a buzz word in the field of social impact these days, but what does it mean and why do we need to be more comfortable working with systems?

At SHIFT we have worked with many organizations and sectors looking to make progress on a whole range of “sticky” issues— climate change, chronic disease and homelessness, to name a few. But sometimes we wonder: what will make our efforts contribute to enduring change over the long term? How do we know the same problems won’t resurface again and again?

You might have heard of systems thinking as “seeing root causes” or “understanding the big picture.” For me, adopting a systems practice means going beyond problem solving, to grapple with the conditions that make enduring social change possible.

What are systems?

When you hear the word “system”, you might think of something like a transportation system, an energy system, or the health system. According to Donella Meadows, a system is a set of things—people, cells, molecules, or whatever—that are interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behaviour over time. And, every system is a sub-set of a larger system.

More and more, I am drawn to looking at systems rather than isolated issues, because the challenges we collectively face are increasingly complex, unpredictable and constantly evolving. We try and try, but despite our best efforts, as soon as we make a little bit of progress, a whole other set of challenges emerges. You might be working on issues like this– the refugee crisis, the opioid crisis, affordable housing, chronic health conditions, or climate change. Why haven’t we been able to solve these problems?

Well, maybe we’ve been asking the wrong question. What if it’s not about addressing the problem, but about addressing the interconnected system that produces the problem?

The fact is, systems aren’t broken. They are producing the exact outcomes they are designed to produce. So, addressing the problems without also addressing the underlying system producing the problems, sets us up to recreate the same patterns over and over again.

Taking in the bigger picture—what many of us in the social sector call systems thinking—requires that we understand a system’s many stakeholders, how they interact, and what influences them. Systems thinking means understanding the web of interrelations that create complex problems and rethinking assumptions about how change happens.

The approach isn’t new, but it is also still not a part of common practice. So, how can we build the mindsets and muscles we need to address systems, not only solve problems?

There is No Magic Lever

Often when I am facilitating a group, we are trying to identify “levers of change.” I sometimes worry that this metaphor can fool us into thinking there is a magic lever or button, and that if we can just pinpoint it, this will change the outcome instantly. However, practice tells us it’s not so. A systems practice can help us act more strategically, but it’s not going to allow us to find magical shortcuts to very complex issues. Instead, we begin to identify the most promising opportunities to create lasting, deep change and a robust way to make sense of how a system is changing in response to an intervention.

How to develop a systems practice?

At SHIFT we are working to develop the following 4 key mindset shifts to develop a systems practice.

1. Seek health of the system, not mission accomplished.

Complex systems don’t get solved. They are constantly evolving and don’t have a finish line. It’s not about solving the problem, but addressing the interconnected system that produces the problem. Really what we want to do is create a healthier system; this is what is going to lead to the outcomes we are trying create over time.

2. See patterns not just problems.

In a typical management mindset we have been trained to (and society is very accepting of) “tackling problems head on.” But a linear mindset is not helpful here. We need the ability to step back and see the patterns behind the problem. Identifying the patterns and how they influence the system is more important than focusing on just the problem itself.

3. Unlock change; don’t impose it.

Systems aren’t broken so we cannot fix them. But we can unlock the forces in the system that allow for the desired outcomes to emerge. If we can unlock these conditions the system will change itself.

4. Plan to Adapt. Don’t stay the course.

Dynamic systems are always shifting and that’s what requires us to adapt. We often say, “hold your intentions tightly, and your plans lightly”.

A Systems Practice Needs Systems Leadership

It can feel daunting and overwhelming to go beyond addressing problems to working with systems. So, where do we begin?

Unfortunately, there are no easy and quick answers. While there are many tools and approaches that can help us (like systems mapping and systems modelling), they are not ends in themselves. As Joe Hsueh from SecondMuse says, “they are tools for us to create a space where we open our minds, open our hearts and open our will.” In other words, systems practice needs systems leadership: the capacity to see the larger system ourselves, and to help others see this as well. At its core, systems practice is really about relationship building, cultivating awareness and staying still long enough to discern the next wise action.

As Misra and Maxwell say, “Growing a systems mindset is a lifelong practice, and is more effective when shared broadly (across networks) and deeply (from the grassroots to systems leaders). Change efforts can stall when new leaders and frontline workers don’t understand what a systems approach is or why it makes a difference. Leaders need to develop a systems mindset intentionally—among all stakeholders and over time—to create continuous and consistent systems-level action.”

How we can help?

At SHIFT we are more interested in being enablers than experts. Rather than working with organizations to solve problems, we work to build the mindsets and muscles of people inside systems to drive change from within. And just as we encourage in the people we work with, we are committed to our own ongoing learning journey – right now this includes applying tools like systems maps to form a shared understanding of the system, identifying leverage points to drive change, and crafting ever more effective theories of change to guide leaders in their quest for greater impact.

Interested in learning more?

Systems Tools and Resources:

Acumen Systems Practice Course:

The Dawn of Systems Leadership:

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