Talking About Systems: looking for systems in the news (and not)
Email this Post Email this Post

Archive for the ‘Systems + Leadership’ Category

Leaning into Complexity: Young Leaders of Systems Change

HI EVERYONE!   

It’s been a while. I hope you’re all staying healthy and finding a new rhythm during these challenging times.  Like many of you, I feel our systems-based work is more urgent than ever.

Young people are watching.  They’re worrying. From climate change to our current pandemic, adults don’t seem to have the answers. Even the very young now know that events in China can close down schools, economies, and be responsible for deaths thousands of miles away. They know in their bones they’re living in a tightly interconnected web (what Martin Luther King called “the interrelated structure of reality”).

Here are the questions I go to bed with and wake up in the morning thinking about: How can we encourage young people to understand and lean into the complexity they’re experiencing and, see that complexity as a feature of their world — a guide –  rather than the enemy? How can we help them to look to the other side of the hardship and disruption they’re experiencing, to feel confident they can solve complex problems and together, innovate their way to healthier futures? Curious how you would answer those questions. For me, whole-systems learningexperiential opportunities to improve our ability to see, understand and work with interdependent systems — is one answer. For an example of “whole-systems learning” in action, partnership, please read on. 

————————————————-

During a recent climate change rally, on an unusually warm day late last fall, I noticed two young women holding this sign:   

They laughed when I asked them about systems change. They had to admit, systems change sounded like a good idea but they weren’t sure how to actually do systems change. Fair enough. Most adults don’t either.

Last Fall, I started working with teenagers and young adults through a local non-profit called SparkShare (https://www.sparkshare.org/), a non-profit dedicated to supporting young people to solve problems across differences. During a one-day systems change summit, I worked with 100 teen leaders in 13 groups from the Boston area, all of whom are focused on solving complex challenges in their communities — from vaping, substance abuse, racial equity, to youth employment, climate change and safer streets.

Sparkshare Systems Change Summit

During the summit, the youth groups focused on “helping the system to see itself” through systems mapping.  We also built in plenty of opportunities to envision “future states” (Buckminster Fuller’s term), cross-pollinate between and among the groups, make real commitments for action and have fun!  In the month leading up to the summit, I worked with each group virtually to shape a strong systems question, one that incorporated change over time.  I opened the summit by thanking some of my “teachers” including Dana Meadows, Ruth Rominger, John Sterman, Dennis Meadows, and Peter Senge, and introduced the concept of systems, system dynamics and the broader field of systems change. At the close, I let them know they were not alone and encouraged them to connect with the growing number of people around the world who understand and use systems-based approaches in a variety of professions.

Their reaction to the day was electric! You can see a short video below:

Youth Leading Systems Change

Most exciting were the practical actions groups took after the summit. One team used their systems mapping experience to better understand the multiple factors that drive teen vaping, concluding that they had to reach their peers in different ways, reduce access, and engage adults. After the summit, they partnered with a manufacturer of vaping detectors and are now working with school administration to get vaping detectors into bathrooms at their high school.

Together with the team at Sparkshare, we’re working to make systems change a core part of how their youth partners work together to positively impact their communities, and develop the skills to become the future problem solvers our world desperately needs. We’re actively looking for funding to create a scaleable systems change “hub” offering:

  • Virtual, in-person labs for whole-systems learning, rapid prototyping 
  • Collaborative network building
  • Peer and expert coaching
  • Virtual, in-person community
  • Question-led database
  • Protocols that enable partners to test solutions and learn from what works (and what doesn’t).

If you can help us make this systems change “hub” a reality, please do be in touch. I’ll be announcing upcoming “whole-systems learning” opporutnities over the next few months via this blog.

Take good care!

What is Systems Change: Fostering health in systems through coordinated shifts in narratives, relationships, networks and structures.   

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 www.lindaboothsweeney.net).

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

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.