Talking About Systems: looking for systems in the news (and not)
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Archive for the ‘Systems + Leadership’ Category

What does it take to change the world—and are you up for it?

Systems change. That’s a phrase I’m hearing more and more. And I wonder, where our next generation of leaders learn to drive this kind of change, the systems kind, where nothing stands alone and actions leave tracks? Where will they learn to connect the dots, discovering as they do force multipliers among seemingly disconnected issues like education reform, climate change, electoral reform, racism, violence both local and global, and inequities of every kind, among other pressing issues of our day?  Web

We know these challenges don’t occur in a vacuum.  Climate change displaces people, which exacerbates poverty and conflicts among classes, races, and religions, which makes it harder to stop or reverse climate change, and so on and so on.

To transform systems, we need to make them visible. We need to see how seemingly unrelated things affect one another. We need narratives and visuals that reflect the complexity of our world; and we need to truly understand what it takes to transform and renew systems.

My hope for any anyone who wants to change the world is this: Understand in your bones what Martin Luther King called the “interrelated structure of reality.”  Many, many others have made the same observation.  Wise author, Joseph Campbell, once said:  “People who don’t have an understanding of the whole can do very unfortunate things.” I want us to flip that: People who understand the whole can do very fortunate things!  

As leaders working to create systems change, we need to know the difference between a system and a heap (image from

As leaders working to create systems change, we need to know the difference between a system and a heap (image from

Here’s the challenge: most of us get that everything is connected to everything else. Yet we often act just the opposite: We act as if we are separate from the natural world in which we live. We inadvertently play whack-a-mole, legislating policies to solve one problem only to cause other problems somewhere else. We design products that serve some practical purpose but simultaneously harm our planet. Just think of the number of road-building programs meant to reduce congestion that have actually ended up increasing traffic, delays and pollution.

In some ways, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Much of our education remains focused on discrete disciplines (e.g., math, science, engineering) that train students to “solve” problems with highly focused technical skills and no understanding of how their technical solutions impact other problems in what are always tightly interconnected systems.

So, where do you start? Understanding context is key. For me, I get to context by gathering up all the pieces I see, connecting them to each other, and reconnecting them to a larger whole. It’s much like putting together the many different pieces of a puzzle in order to discover a larger picture or meaning than any one piece alone could reveal. This usually means you need to reach across boundaries and across sectors and engage as many voices and differing perspectives as you can.

Whether I’m working with a community, an organization, a school, or even my own family, the result is a greater sense of health and vitality. Indeed, the root of the word health comes from the Old English hǣlth, which is related to the word whole. I’ve seen this over and over, which is one of the reasons why I’ve been at this systems thinking idea for so long.

To truly transform systems, we all need to learn how to embrace ambiguity, to make friends with failure, to understand that our inner journey is inextricably linked to our external success, and to no longer blame a single cause for some outcome. We must learn to look deeper, to look for all those hidden causes that are interconnected and together produce and perpetuate those symptoms or outcomes we don’t like.

And, if you can do all of this with a committed, diverse group of people with a common focus on transforming what Russ Ackoff called wicked messes or my friend and colleague Sara Schley calls painful persistent problems? Your experience and your result will be all the better.

I’m working now on a systems “playbook” for young leaders working to make systems-driven change.  If you’re applying (or interested in applying) an an understanding of complex systems into learning, decision making and design, be in touch.  I’m eager to hear from you.

If you haven’t yet, take a look at:

Where do we draw the line?

Cleaning out my emails at year end, I realized that over the last six months no less than ten excited emails had come in, urging me to see “How Wolves Change Rivers.” This four-minute piece video tells the story of the reintroduction  of the wolves to Yellowstone National Park, after it had been wolf-free for nearly 70 years.

It’s beautifully done and an inspirational story.  You can’t help but walk away with a felt sense of just how tightly coupled and interconnected our world really is.  With 1.6 million likes on Facebook, the video is an internet hit.

And it raises a question for me:  when our job is to work with “systems”, where do we draw the line?  What’s in? And what’s not?

My caution here comes from an experience I had writing an article for Highlights Magazine for Children, a magazine with a distribution to over a million subscribers, including a enormous number of dentist offices.

For the article — Bringing Back the Wolves: Yellowstone National Park is Thriving, Thanks to a Long-feared Carnivore (June 2011, Vol 66, p 30), I interviewed wildlife biologists, scientists and researchers. What I didn’t do was interview those who were also impacted by the wolves return.  I quickly found out who I’d left out of the “system” when I began to receive some heart-pounding hate mail from ranchers, farmers and other folks living in neighboring communities. As I learned, sheep were killed by the wolves on ranches, small dogs had gone missing and worse, some families felt their children were in danger as wolves were spotted roaming in their yards.

The Highlights publishing team stood firmly behind me because I had the facts correct.  But I had to pause, and wonder, could I have drawn the circle wider in my story, and acknowledged the wider impact of the wolf’s return?

That’s a question I carry with me in my work today. And thanks to the poet Edwin Markham, I have a helpful reminder on my bulletin board.

Why We Should be Suspect of Bullet Points and Laundry Lists

An article in this week’s New York Times is a causing quite a brouhaha among fans of systems thinking. It seems that the Army is fed up with Powerpoint. (We Have Met the Enemy and He is Powerpoint, April 26, 2010)


But wait. Why are we celebrating?

Like many of us in the applied systems theory field, the Army (and in particular, General McMaster) has recognized that, “some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.” So the complexity of the Afghan situation cannot be condensed into bullet points, after all. PowerPoint, a favorite tool of the military to convey vast amounts of information, is under fire because, as General McMaster points out, it takes no account of interconnections and interrelationships among political, economic and ethnic forces.

General McMaster, we the scientists, practitioners and educators in the burgeoning field of applied systems science applaud you with one hand.  We agree with you that problem solving requires a focus on interconnections, rather than on parts in isolation. Indeed, if you look around you’ll see a systems approach is driving the search for solutions for many of the problems we face in the environment, engineering, and in human societies. More and more, we see food, climate, childhood obesity, poverty, energy and other global challenges “systems” issues.

Yet when the interconnections and interrelationships of American military strategy were represented (as they were in this PowerPoint slide shown in Kabul), General McChrystal brushed it off as too complex and therefore not understandable.

What’s a leader to do?  Most leaders are required to drive action. They must clearly state a goal, line up a set of actions, exert pressure, and then reach the goal.  Many leaders would agree that when lining up strategy, bullet points over-simplify and in the end, mislead. Yet complex systems maps are, well, too complex. 

Let’s pause here for a moment to ask the elephant-in-the-room question:  How did we get here? How did we get so bullet point and PowerPoint obsessed?

Of course, that could be the topic of a much longer blog (or book) but here is one, short answer:  We Americans are encouraged to focus on objects rather than relationships.

In his book, The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why (2003), cognitive psychologist Richard Nisbett reports on studies conducted by developmental psychologists with American children. American school children and college students tended to group objects (such as a cow, a chicken and grass) by their taxonomic category. Chinese school children and college students, however, grouped objects based on interrelationships. For example, American students would group a cow with a chicken because they were both animals whereas Chinese students would be more likely to put the cow and grass together because the “cow eats the grass”.  Referring to a similar study conducted with American and Japanese children, Nisbett observes:  “American children are learning that the world is mostly a place with objects, Japanese children that the world is mostly about relationships.”

There are many other influences, such as language structure, compartmentalization of disciplines in school, and more.  It’s no wonder our military leaders get antsy when they see a complex systems map.  Most Americans, including our military, industry and government leaders, were not taught to think systemically; we were taught that the best way to understand a subject was to analyze it or break it up into parts.  

Thinking in terms of systems doesn’t have to be hard.  And it doesn’t have to replace bullet pointed lists and the 2×2 matrix.  In many instances, it simply requires a perception shift from, for example, focusing on parts and fragments to tracing interconnections and the often surprising  dynamics created by closed loops of cause and effect.* 

In my classes and talks, I encourage students and audiences to be suspect of information that is presented as discrete (bullet point lists, for instance).  When you see the world in terms of interconnections, networks and systems, you make a perspective shift:

From:  Discrete information   –>    To:  Closed Loops of Cause & Effect

When presented with bullet points, ask questions.  Probe how those elements may be interconnected in closed loops of causality.  Imagine you are in the audience as a presenter concludes his or her presentation with a list of “Next Steps.”  One step is to “train future leaders” in a specific research or problem-solving approach. The next step is to “increase funding for special projects”.  Rather that nodding your head and swallowing the list whole, pause, and ask:  “What will happen if we train more future leaders?  Will that have some impact on the our ability to ‘increase funding for special projects’?” Look beyond the bullet points for multiple causes, effects and unintended or unexpected impacts.

“What?!” you say?  Ask more questions?  There’s no reward in that!  As a general, manager, or any type of leader, I need to know where to exert my effort, my resources and my attention.  

I can offer you this promise:  If  you find ways to work with your team to map either the current or desired reality of a complex issue, using pencil & paper sketches, PowerPoint or computer models, you will:  a) uncover a host of unintended consequences that emerge from the interactions among your decisions, b) discover unforeseen leverage points, and c) make more informed decisions and policy changes that will likely lead to positive results. As a side benefit, you will be more likely to get off that problem solving treadmill, where our “solutions” often only create more problems or make the original problem worse and, as a result of creating causal models as a group, you will experience greater clarity and learning among group members. (By the way, if you don’t do these things, Joseph Campbell has a warning for you:  “People who don’t have a concept of the whole, can do very unfortunate things…”). 

And what about PowerPoint?  Is it such an evil tool? 

In my opinion, the Army missed the point about PowerPoint.  PowerPoint, like any tool, it is only as good as the person using it. You can dumb down complexity by parsing out information into mind-numbing sets of bullet points.  You can also use PowerPoint to represent complex interrelationships and dynamics by using arrows, icons and builds.  The mistake made with the American military map is that too large a serving of spaghetti was put on one plate, instead of showing one noodle (or causal link), and one domain (e.g., tribal governance) at a time. (My assumption here though, is that since the map was created by the highly-skilled PA Consulting Group, the map was presented to the generals one section at a time). 

Whether you’re an educator, business leader, physician, urban planner, engineer, community organizer, or military general, it’s time to be curious about how this is connected to that.  We all need to move beyond laundry list or bullet point thinking to seeing and thinking about patterns of interaction, networks and other lines of inquiry and problem solving that more closely matches the more interdependent, complex world we live in. 

L. Booth Sweeney,  Concord, MA


For another system dynamics perspective from on the New York Times article, see this post from Chris Soderquist

Many thanks to Gale Pryor and John Sweeney for their thoughtful commentary on early drafts of this post).  


*What are “closed loops of cause and effect?”:  When we “get” the idea of closed loops (vs. straight lines) of cause and effect, we understand that closed “feedback loops”— circular loops of mutual causality that amplify change — underlie the spread of a rumor, the growth of a virus, or a successful person’s willingness to take on more work.  Reinforcing feedback loops act as engines of growth:  change in a system feeds back to cause even more change in the system. 

We also look for balancing or self-regulating feedback — a set of interactions that return a system (like your body, an ecosystem, market systems) back to a state of equilibrium.  By their very nature, balancing feedback works to bring things to a desired state and keep them there.  When we understand balancing feedback, we stop using our thermostat like a gas pedal, increasing or decreasing the temperature to suit our moment-by-moment needs.  Rather we let the internal feedback structure do its work, allowing the temperature to self-adjust to a desired temperature.