This is the first of a three part post regarding Changing Systems.
It gives me great joy to read articles about problems where a well reasoned plan results in positive change to a system – creating a better situation for everyone involved. It gives me hope. Occasionally, however, I read a well intentioned article that leaves me with a gnawing sense of frustration. Sometimes this is because the author frames the problem in one-sided terms or because I feel like the perspectives of the people embedded within the situation were only partially considered, or dismissed out of hand. Often, in these cases, I find the solution well intentioned, but bound to fail because some deeply entrenched stakeholder’s interests are ignored.
The following posts are my attempt to add to our collective set of skills for tackling the complex problems we often encounter in the world around us. I welcome your feedback – I’m well aware that I don’t have all the answers.
We all live among systems. We drive systems, we are paid by systems, we are surrounded by systems. Often we may feel frustrated by the way that some of the systems around us work. We may decide that we want to make a change to a system.
System Dynamics was first introduced at MIT. It has produced a powerful set of tools for those of us who are interested in changing our world for the better. Broadly collected, some call these tools Systems Thinking. This way of thinking allows us to recognize what happens when a number of individuals come together for a common purpose. The lenses of System Dynamics often produce startling insights. I am looking forward to creating a small tutorial on Systems Thinking. Until then, these posts are offered for those who already feel at home thinking in terms of systems and are ready to take a more active approach to tackling change now. Alternatively, for those of us who may have tried to make a change, and been frustrated by the resilience of the world around us, this post may help to create an understanding of where you might be able to get your change unstuck.
When considering what we usually think of as systems (governments, corporations, schools, and in one school of thought, families), it is important to recognize that human-created systems exist without values. This might be viewed controversially, but all I am saying is that Values (as we understand and appreciate them) only exist within conscious minds. Values can be supported or discouraged by the structure of a system, but the system itself does not experience values. (This includes the context of Family System Theory. The important idea is that there is a difference between family members, and the systems they co-create. “Family Values” are those values supported by the family system – whatever those values may be. The idea of “functional” or “dysfunctional” is a values judgment from an observer.)
The qualities that systems might conceivably be thought to “value” are those qualities that pragmatically contribute toward the system’s continued existence, stability or growth - but even those values are not emotionally felt by a system. Other values that we may observe inside a system are, in fact, human imposed. This is an important understanding, as it clearly places the responsibility for designing systems that support human well-being on our own shoulders. Since human systems exist to support humanity, tolerating harmful systems arising from tradition or custom is indefensible. Since our systems are human created, they must be managed by us as well – no matter how complex or resistant they may be to change once they are in place. Those who argue for the “rights” of systems (most often in terms of corporations) are using arguments that only have validity if these systems experience consciousness.
Systems typically exist to fulfill human needs and desires. As long as stakeholders’ purposes are fulfilled, they will continue to support the system. Systems also tend, especially at higher level of complexity, to create unanticipated (emergent) effects. These can be in the form of new feedback loops (think lobbyists), unanticipated growth (pork barrel projects) or new stable patterns in unanticipated and sometimes unwanted forms (corruption, the incumbent effect, etc.) Occasionally an observer or participant will label this behavior with a human value (i.e. “the system is corrupt.”) It is important to remember that systems themselves, while highly complex, do not to our knowledge contain what we consider to be consciousness or self-awareness (We might be better served to think, “this system encourages corruption.”) The difference in perspective can be massively enabling, and just a change in wording can sometimes begin to suggest a remedy to the problem. (Instead of “throwing the bums out,” we might instead look deeper to increase penalties, or decrease opportunities to outside of the system.)
Some of the reasons that systems exhibit emergent behaviors are due to the combined effects of multiple human agents within the systems. These may stem from inherent biases present in the system architects themselves, or they may be due to emergent properties that arise from the complexity of the system itself (for reasons that Complexity Theory seeks to explain).
Within the world of Systems Engineering, many design questions are left to unnamed system designers, many are left to plant managers, and many are left to emerge from the complexity within the workforce itself. Often, this ad hoc approach leads to future problems that can become very difficult to eradicate. I’m encouraged by the excellent work being done by Jay Forrester at MIT with his System Dynamics in Education Project. I just heard of this program through this post and was encouraged by this idea with genuine potential to help our society create better intentioned, better designed systems in the future.
Due to human beings' natural ability to create simple feedback loops, and because of the resilience created by many agents creating reinforcing loops, systems may tend to become more stable and strong over time. Due to the competing goals embedded within systems, and the competing purposes that various system designers and stakeholders embody, systems may appear to contain inefficiencies if viewed from any singular perspective. It's important to realize that this is not necessarily a bad thing. We are fortunate in that systems serve many stakeholders – in fact, that's why systems work at all. Well designed systems operate from principles of voluntary, incentive based exchange, and become more robust as they meet more needs of individual stakeholders.
Important to note is the idea that any stakeholder left out of the system design will modify the system to accommodate his, her or its needs. I call this the Stolen Penny Problem. Typically (although not always) a low status member of a system has some amount of value taken away by the system. That person or entity may then feel justified in recouping two pennies at the system's expense (the justification relies on the involuntary nature of the initial trade). This can, in turn, lead to another party in the system reacting even more harshly to the perception that two pennies have been stolen. In extreme cases, entire systems can cease to function from the exponential nature of the Stolen Penny problem.
Examples of this may be as simple as parents experiencing a disrespectful attitude or disobedience from a child after setting a curfew, management experiencing reduced productivity after instituting a policy of longer work hours, or, plants being relocated away from cities where the workers’ compensation system is habitually abused.
Since human systems themselves appear to be essentially without values, it becomes important that the inevitable impact of systems on people are carefully considered and designed for. This might take the form of allowing a child to stay up as late as he or she wants one night a week. It might take form as down time purposefully unaccounted for during shift changes to accommodate a wide range of diverse needs (including daycare arrangements, communication about new kinks in the machinery to be aware of, or good old-fashioned friction-easing gossip). Or it might look like ambiguity and flexibility deliberately engineered into bonus programs to allow for the possibility of rewarding unforeseen acheivements, or sick leave policies that appear “poorly defined” but are in fact left deliberately vague to allow for a variety of emergency family situations.
If human personality and individuality is not anticipated and appreciated, many stakeholders may end up dissatisfied and as a result the system will function poorly, creating unforeseeable negative repercussions in unexpected places. Excellent system design only occurs where all stakeholders have been included equally in the process and when the process is managed with wisdom and dignity. It may sometimes occur that managers, supervisors, parents or other high status individuals will expect that their views should be more completely adhered to or more thoughtfully considered during the design process, but this is in fact opposite to what intelligent design might recommend. Since higher status generally confers the ability to adjust the system after it is implemented, it is in fact the low status individuals, who will have less say in ongoing operation, whose views may wisely be more carefully considered during the design process, (so as not to introduce a Stolen Penny problem that can be extremely difficult to correct after implementation.)
In short, when we find systems difficult to change, it is because we have not understood the competing goals of all stakeholders. Very often we may not even be aware of all of the stakeholders to a system or how those parties provide their feedback.
Until this point, this has been largely a theoretical piece. In my next post, I’d like to consider some real world examples of systems – especially those with unacknowledged stakeholders operating through unaccounted-for communication channels.
I hope this post has some value in the continuing search for a better future. Please let me know if you find anything helpful, or if you have any suggestions.