Talking About Systems: looking for systems in the news (and not)
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Archive for the ‘The Friedman Project’ Category

The Friedman Project – A First Netsim

Good things come to those who wait.

Back in February 2009,  I launched the Friedman Project.  As part of that project I promised to walk you through the systems discussed by New York Times journalist, Thomas Friedman in his articles and books.  


The intent of the Friedman Project is to leverage Friedman’s natural tendency to talk in “systems” by making the systems he talks about — climate, energy, food, etc. — visible.  So far I’ve done this with the help of causal loop diagrams and cartoons. 

I’m very pleased to announce that Chris Soderquist and I have created our first Friedman Project netsim.  This netsim allows you to explore the system dynamics inherent in a recent New York Times article  by Tom Friedman entitled “Win Win Win Win Win.” 

There are more netsims to come.  Check this one out.  And let us know what you think.

 Are you finding it easier to “see systems”?  Are you making systems — rather than fragments — the context for our own learning, problem solving or design efforts?  

If the answer is “yes,” then we’re on the right track.  If not, we’ll keep working at it.

Thomas Friedman’s Op-Ed: “Win, Win, Win, Win, Win”: Making the Systems Visible

In a recent New York Times Op-Ed,  Thomas Friedman argues that the second most important rule to energy innovation is “a systemic approach.”  

In this article, Friedman talks us through a recurring “play,” in which gas prices, consumer demand full-efficient cars and “petro-dictators” all play a part.  According to Friedman, the play goes like this: 

“Which play? The one where gasoline prices go up, pressure rises for more fuel-efficient cars, then gasoline prices fall and the pressure for low-mileage vehicles vanishes, consumers stop buying those cars, the oil producers celebrate, we remain addicted to oil and prices gradually go up again, petro-dictators get rich, we lose. I’ve already seen this play three times in my life.  Trust me: It always ends the same way — badly.”

OK.  So, let’s look at the system (or set of interrelationships) behind the “Win, Win, Win…” play.  Friedman identifies several interconnected elements:

Gas prices (go up and down)  

Pressure for more fuel-efficient vehicles (goes up or down)

Here is a very simple map of the system: 

slide26If we walk around the loop, it reads like this: 

As gas prices go up, pressure to increase fuel efficiency goes up.*   In the short term, the reduced demand on gasoline, means more supply and eventually gas prices fall. 

What happens to the demand for more fuel-efficient cars when prices fall?

It falls off.  And for those who may have been driving less, start to drive more.  Why?  The pressure’s off. 

Where else have you seen this kind of pattern? 

It reminds me of the ups and downs of dieting and exercise.  You exercise and loose weight.  Great.  End of story, right?  Well, not usually. Often, when we lose the weight, the pressure’s off, so we ease up a bit.  And over time,  we gain the weight back and we start to diet again. 

If we go back to our occasional gasoline “diet”, there’s more to the story. Our dependency on the symptomatic solution, in this case, foreign oil, keeps us in a state of addiction, and so, less focused on more fundamental solutions, one of which is getting off foreign oil and onto clean energy alternatives.  If we look at this pattern through the lens of a system archetype called “shifting the burden” it might look like this: 


Here’s the rub:  The upper loop (the short-term solution) works, in the short term. It’s insidious though. Because it works, it takes us away from more fundamental solutions. A classic example of a shifting the burden archetype is alcohol and drug use.  Feeling stressed?  Have a glass of wine.  Or two.  Over time however, this response to stress can have unanticipated side effect, such as greater fatigue, poor health, and addiction.  The burden for solving the problem or making the pain go away is shifted onto the upper loop.  

What might be a longer-term, more fundamental solution to stress?  For some, it may be making an adjustment to workload, or getting more sleep. For others, it might mean increasing how much they exercise or reconnecting with friends.

So what can we do?  Perhaps one step is to remember what long-term solutions look like.  Look at older people in China practicing Qigong in the parks, day in and day out.  That’s a long-term, mind-body health solution.  Hiring in outside consultants can be a short-term solution.  Developing skills and leadership capacity in existing staff is a long-term solution.  

So what else can we do?  Another simple step is to start paying attention to the recurring patterns, or the “plays” as Friedman calls them.  If we’re able to see shifting the burden patterns, or a host of other recurring systems patterns around us, for what they are, we’re more likely to be able to step out of the habitual patterns of thought and action associated with them.  When we can do this, we’re more able to work with and eventually change those patterns.   

To explore these dynamics further, check out the Friedman project netsim created by myself and my colleague  Chris Soderquist.

*Prices need to stay up a while for this pressure to have a significant and lasting impact.  

– Thank you to Dave Smyth for creating these wonderful  illustrations.

Announcing The Friedman Project

Thomas Friedman + Suzy Systems = Systems Literacy

It’s bitter cold here in the Northeast.   My kids seem to have the gloves-boots-hat set permanently attached to their bodies.  I haven’t received mail for days:  our mailman just isn’t into climbing the snow mound that blocks our mailbox.   And yet, I can’t seem to quell this rumble of excitement, this surge of anticipation.  Christmas is over. So what is it? 

It’s hope.   I’m feeling hopeful, even with these seemingly endless days of ice and snow.  President Obama gives me hope.  And someone else does too: Thomas Friedman. 

If you don’t know him, Thomas Friedman is the foreign affairs and occasional op-ed columnist for the New York Times.  (If I could, I’d promote him to “Our World Affairs” columnist).

I became a fan of his writing early on when I realized he writes from a systems perspective. What does that mean?  You’ll rarely find Friedman focused on just a part or a fragment.  To Friedman, nothing stands in isolation.  Instead, he writes about systems – interrelated parts and processes that continually affect each other over time.  And he sees systems patterns everywhere — in escalating gas prices, in financial markets, in the dynamics related to female literacy, in wildlife management – and he wants his reader to understand these systems as well. Recently, Friedman has taken it up a notch, and has started to urge us all to take a more “systemic approach.”   (see Hot, Flat & Crowded, p. 199).  To this I say, Hallelujah! 

Like Friedman, I want people to understand these systems, and I want them to see systems too.

Why? Most Americans, including our industry and government leaders, haven’t been taught to see systems.  In school, I was taught that the best way to understand a subject was to analyze it or break it up into parts.  It wasn’t until I took courses as an adult that I really learned to see systems of multiple causes, effects and unintended impacts.

Yet these are the skills we need to navigate interdependent financial systems, complex energy relationships and issues of global impact such as climate change.  Without these skills, we continue to operate from crisis to crisis, stuck on the problem solving treadmill, where our “solutions” often only create more problems or make the original problem worse.  

For years, I’ve been filling up my “Friedman File” with clippings of his articles and my own attempts to create pictures, simple causal maps, of the systems he writes about.   Now my Friedman file is overflowing.  Since my work is about helping people of all ages to use their own natural systems intelligence in everyday decision making (and to develop systems literacy*), I decided to launch the “The Friedman Project.”  

In each “Friedman Project’ entry, I’ll walk you through the system or systems Friedman is discussing, using simple causal maps.  (Click here to see how I’ve done this for educators with children’s books). In this way, we can all build our systems muscles, and more readily recognize systems in different settings. I hope this thread also helps you to make systems — rather than fragments — the context for your own learning, problem solving and design efforts.

I’ll post the first Friedman Project this week. Let me know what you think. 

Suzy Systems (AKA L. Booth Sweeney) 


* To be literate means you have a good understanding of a particular subject, like a foreign language or mathematics. In this case, the subject is (living) systems.