Thoughts from Systems Thinking for Social Change

Thoughts about and quotes from the book Systems Thinking For Social Change by Stroh.

High-level interesting points:

More detailed notes

The pioneering social psychologist Kurt Lewin said, "If you really want to understand something, try to change it."

Iceberg Mindset

Systems thinking is a set of approaches to understand interconnected and complex systems, and (hopefully) figuring out how to catalyze change. The caveat of this material is that it deals with things that people almost all want to fix like homelessness as opposed to cultural issues (like gay marriage) that face resistance.

The most common diagram to start understanding a system is with the iceberg diagram.

The iceberg distinguishes the events level (what we see most easily) from the pattern of behavior or trend that links many events over time, and then goes deeper to expose the underlying systems structure—the hidden 90 percent of the iceberg that causes the most damage because it shapes the trends and events.

This helps people understand why things are happening, which is the key to understanding how a system actually functions. While individual events above water may vary, many systems actually are very similar under the visible part of the iceberg.

Systems structures can be summarized in terms of recognizable story lines or plots that recur across a wide variety of social issues.

The author discusses how often fixes backfire (he calls them "Fixes that Backfire"), but those fixes usually address symptoms instead of causes.

Interconnected Nature (System Mapping)

Because of the interconnected nature of systems thinking, everyone--even if only in a small way--contributes to problems they're trying to solve. Identifying this is a first step away from blaming others towards figuring out long term fixes.

Systems thinking motivates people to change because they discover their role in exacerbating the problems they want to solve.

System maps are another reliable tool used to understand how complex systems function.

The purpose of the systems map and inquiry into underlying mental models is to help stakeholders create catalytic conversations. Instead of re-creating familiar discussions about limited resources, who is to blame, and who else needs to change, these new conversations are designed to deepen awareness, cultivate acceptance, and develop new alternatives. People learn to see the system more comprehensively and usefully, accept their responsibility for the issue, and expand their views about what they might do differently.

This of course brings to light the elephant analogy we all love.

Each party touches a different part of the elephant and tends to assume that what they experience is the elephant instead of just one part of a more complex reality.

Understanding the problems, dynamics, and everyone's role (including one's own role) helps allow people to start fixing things.

Fixing Things

Because systems are interconnected, optimization is less about the individual actors as much as it is about their interactions.

In order to optimize the performance of the entire system, people need to shift from trying to optimize their part of the system to improving relationships among its constituent parts.
Kania and Kramer describe five conditions for collective success across diverse stakeholders: "a common agenda, shared measurement systems, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication, and backbone support organizations."

Holding the end goal in mind while optimizing the interactions in the system can lead to progress.

If people hold to the vision of what they want and are simultaneously clear and candid about where they are, then the tension will tend to resolve in favor of what they want.

Growth and Results

Because systems are complex--and all the components interact--feedback looks are created. These can be either good (fixes!) or bad (problems!). When it comes to bad problems, it's important to look out for the warning signs.

Since exponential growth also applies to seemingly trivial problems getting much worse over time, it is important to monitor such problems early on and consider addressing them rapidly instead of hoping they go away.

But another danger can exist when the pressure to show results is on: short term results often backfire in the long term. This seems like a trap not to fall into. A couple problems could arrise here: first, we think the problem is fixed (and investment stops).

First, we often stop investing in the solution once a problem appears solved.

But secondly, or worse, bad plans are made in order to simple show short term results:

Because of the pressure to show immediate results—whether self-generated or created by such factors as public opinion, budget cycles, investor expectations, and voting cycles—it can be difficult for policy makers to respect and work with time delays. Leaders can respond more effectively to this pressure when they learn to distinguish quick fixes from short-term small successes. Quick fixes are solutions that produce short-run benefits, which are typically neutralized or eroded by longer-run consequences of the same actions.

Ever Changing

Because of the interconnected nature, things are always changing. This means that once folks understand the system and what needs to happen, it needs to keep being understood because it's always changing. This demands a "learning" mindset.

Systems thinking stimulates continuous learning, which is an essential characteristic of any meaningful change in complex systems. The inherent and ever-changing complexity of social problems forces people to accept that knowledge is never complete or static.