Thinking about Systems Change

Early in my career, I taught and believed change was a linear process. Implicit was the idea that we could plan, organize and control change as well. My views changed as I was exposed to systems and systemic change.

One of my first exposures was reading Margaret Wheatley’s Leadership and the New Science. For the first time, I saw organizations and communities as living organisms best understood through scientific lenses such as biology, chaos theory and quantum physics. I didn’t (and still don’t) grasp all the concepts, but I understood you cannot “change manage” a system.

I attended a talk by Peter Senge who, to explain systems, said, “When you flush, it goes somewhere.” Now this I could understand, and it made me think about the ripple effects over distance and time that change can create, as well as unintended consequences.

I had the honor of attending a training program in Orlando led by Dr. Deming. Understanding Systems was one of the four pillars of his System of Profound Knowledge. Rather than organizational charts, we used systems maps to understand organizations. I learned a system:
• Consists of inter-related and interacting parts
• Exists in an environment with which it also interacts
• Has a purpose or “aim”
• Is ever changing and needs to managed effectively
• If parts of a system compete or strive for optimal performance on their own, the performance of the whole system suffers and this is called sub-optimization.

Deming’s famous Red Bead Exercise reinforced powerful learnings such as:
• If you pit a good person against a bad system, the system will win every time.
• If you change out the people without changing the system, you will not change the results.

At a practical level, when I work with an organization, I start with a systems lens and the premise that the organization is perfectly operating as a system to get the results it is getting. In other words, the structures, policies, processes and relationships inside and outside the organization are interacting to produce the current organizational outcomes. To improve outcomes, you need to approach change through a systems lens.

How do you do that? These Seven Lessons for Leaders in System Change are helpful:
1. To promote systems change, foster community and cultivate networks.
2. Work at multiple levels of scale.
3. Make space for chaos and self-organization.
4. Seize breakthrough opportunities when they arise.
5. Facilitate – but give up the illusion you can direct – change.
6. Assume that change is going to take time.
7. Be prepared to be surprised.

Systems change is not for the feint of heart.

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