System 2 slider solar system

In a complex system, all the elements affect each other mutually.

Ludwig von Bertalanffy  “Hence the appearance, in all fields of science, of notions like wholeness, holistic, organismic, gestalt, etc., which all signify that, in the last resort, we must think in terms of systems of elements in mutual interaction…”

Systems thinking has fundamentally changed the sciences, transformed our understanding of business processes, and revolutionized strategic planning in the military and in certain large businesses. But it has so far had little effect on government (beyond a few federal agencies, mostly in research) and has gained little public awareness. Most people seem to think it is an arcane, super-specialized way of looking at things. It is instead an essential shift of focus which is necessary now and will become more and more important in the future. If you do not understand the basics of systems thinking, you are not alone, but eventually it will become the foundation of your world-view.

A few insights are at the center of systems thinking:

  • Everything in the living world functions in systems (think of ecosystems).
  • The elements of systems interact mutually, not in isolated linear causality. Everything affects and is affected by everything else.
  • Systems resist change, and often react paradoxically to direct, simple interventions.
  • To change anything significant you have to change the system in which it operates.

Places are complex systems, so changing a place involves changing a system. But systems are tricky. When we set out to reduce crime, putting more and more people in prison is not the solution. Drugs intended to cure diabetes cause heart attacks. Building more highways sometimes causes traffic jams to worsen. Tearing down interstate highways through the heart of cities improves traffic flow.

Here is an example of a system intervention. For years scientists tried to stop the ruinous erosion of streambeds in Yellowstone. Then for entirely other reasons, they reintroduced wolves into the park, and it stopped the erosion. The wolves reduced the Elk population, and the Elk had been eating the streamside plants that hold back the loss of soil. If planting new trees and bushes were the answer it would have taken a lot longer and been a massive and costly undertaking. As it happens, the wolves  and the trees did the work.

The fifth disciplineThe Eleven Laws of the 5th Discipline
1. Today’s problems come from yesterday’s “solutions.”
2. The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back.
3. Behavior grows better before it grows worse.
4. The easy way out usually leads back in.
5. The cure can be worse than the disease.
6. Faster is slower.
7. Cause and effect are not closely related in time and space.
8. Small changes can produce big results…but the areas of
highest leverage are often the least obvious.
9. You can have your cake and eat it too —but not all at once.
10. Dividing an elephant in half does not produce two small elephants.
11. There is no blame.

So, if you want to improve a place, going straight at the apparent problem may backfire. If you want to create more opportunities you have to understand how to change the system in which you operate.

But there is good news concerning working in systems. If you understand how the system works and can find the right points of leverage, you can create change and the system itself will do a lot of the work, and give you outsize results. If you are tackling persistent problems in a place without systems thinking, you are operating just about a full generation out of date.


Image caption: The Solar System

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