On the language of systems (not all problems are created equal)

Sometimes I wonder if there is an obsession among those of us working in the broad field of social change to constantly be ahead of the intellectual curve and using the acceptable language of the day. There is a danger that we use the language without the understanding. It would be like trotting out a few phrases of Spanish – you have an intellectual understanding that you are asking for a cup of coffee but you don’t have the depth of understanding and nuance to get the grammar right nor to make sense of the reply. We end up making assumptions about knowledge and practice because the labels we use imply a depth of understanding of the concepts they are short-hand for. We assume we are all speaking the same language but in reality we may already be at our limit of understanding, using the three of four phrases we have learned. How we talk about our work is important, even as the work remains agnostic of the labels we give it. 

All too often those adopting and promoting systems change language are describing things others have been doing all their careers, perhaps without the systems terminology. Such work might include developing partnerships, fostering deep collaboration, strategic awareness of context and the bigger picture, analysis of incentives and power dynamics, recognition of service silos and hierarchies, listening to communities and centering systems around those they are supposed to benefit, and so on. It’s relational, ongoing, work that doesn’t assume solutions. It spans institutional remits and transcends individual incentives. It inverts the focus from a hierarchical flow of power and resources to people, to one in which people are the starting point. Anyone doing localised work to improve communities and services will recognise this. They will therefore be aware of the notion of systems, even if they don’t describe the work this way. Why, then, do I tend to think that systems work and those doing it are under-rated and under-valued?

Systems thinking can be difficult concept to share, largely I think because it’s not something we encounter in our mainstream education. We are taught there is an answer to everything – and the smarter you are the more difficult problems you can solve and the better grades you get. It’s the linear pathway to goal pursuit and thus success. In a mechanistic world view we see things as happening by cause and effect; find the cause, change it, and the effect becomes one we desire more. While this has led to significant and far-reaching breakthroughs and insights that have resolved challenges (such as replacing defective hearts or tunnelling under the Channel), this has also promulgated a world view that everything – including the earth, ecosystems, the human body – is mechanical and can be defined, categorised, understood, controlled and improved upon. Reductionism is not in and of itself bad for it has helped us solve significant challenges and driven up living standards in large parts of the world. At the same time, this mindset has led to severe degradation of our natural resources, promoted a faith in economic growth and future innovations to solve the problems it has created, and embedded the notion that every problem is solvable.

It’s seeped into how we school our children, design our organisations, define success, manage our staff, and so on. Politicians, donors, managers, investors, sports managers, CEOs, teachers and the like achieve their prominence through – in effect – promising stability and results. To accept that much of their performance, and that of those they rely on, is out of everyone’s control is tantamount to admitting defeat, a form of fatalism before we even start. Yet I think this is an inconvenient truth. We all hide it, don’t like to lift the lid on it. And so we continue with societies that are predicated on concepts of individualism, extraction of value from assets (from people, ideas, natural resources), of being able to command performance and control behaviour. It’s why we have such great hierarchies in our organisations, why the best footballers are paid the most despite playing a team game, why children are taught to obey adults and parents and then wonder why the same dynamic plays out in the workplace. Aren’t we now all adults? It’s why when things go wrong someone has to be to blame, whatever the nature of the problem. We need to be seen to be taking action so we fire the perpetrator, put them on special measures or a personal improvement plan. 

And yet. What happens when this diagnose-prescribe-act approach makes contact with the messy circumstances of our day-to-day reality? How do those schooled in reductionist approaches cope? All too often the answer, not so well, can be labelled as a lack of resilience. Whereas it’s really a lack of approaches to work with, ones that are appropriate for the context. To some extent, deep down, we are aware that a reductionist approach doesn’t work for everything. If it did, we wouldn’t have gun crime and obesity, extremes of poverty and wealth, stock market crashes and cultural differences – or at the very least, having them will be a political and social choice. In effect, those that think and see and interact with the world in terms of systems and patterns are running counter-culturally to the mainstream. 

The critical idea for me is that not all problems are created equal. As a result, we must look to adopt the most appropriate approach in the presenting circumstances. Sometimes reductionism is helpful; other times less so. A general rule of thumb is that any human systems will have elements of complexity involved, for we are a natural part of the ecology of this planet which is itself complex. Adopting only reductionist techniques when sometimes systems thinking is most appropriate is like only ever using a hammer when sometimes a screwdriver offers a better fit to circumstances and task. Or insisting on driving on the left as the right answer regardless of the country you find yourself in. 

In my own experience I often gained insight when invisible forces suddenly surfaced as barriers to change, or people unexpectedly emerged as advocates for change and offered their support. Moments in which I suddenly saw things that I couldn’t previously see, like when clouds unexpectedly part on a grey day and a ray of sunshine illuminates previously hidden features of the landscape. It’s our failure to account for any other interpretation and ways of understanding the world that can lead to unintended consequences and best-intentions leading to worst-case scenarios. 

Whatever language and labels we use, the core questions of systems work – for me –  revolve around how we create change in complex settings. Where are starting from? What’s our why? Who else shares that Why? Do they know they share it? What do we even mean by systems change in the first place? Are we not just talking about finding ways to address social challenges? How do entrenched systems change? What keeps them from changing? To what extent are we able to change systems with intention or is the best we can hope for to nudge and influence systems to evolve in more favourable directions? Who is the ‘we’ in the work – and who gets to decide what ‘favourable’ looks like? These are all valid and ongoing inquiries and ones that – with retrospect – have been at the heart of my work over the years. And they feel more important than ever right now.

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