The 11 Laws of Systems Thinking and Stakeholder Engagement
Systems thinking as a way of looking at the world. It's the only way to look at and navigate a complex adaptive system like the the education system. Peter Senge identified 11 Laws, or truths, that leaders can use to guide the way through the rough waters that so often plague education. This post describes how community engagement can be used reduce the unintended consequences of decisions and ensure clear sailing.
In this article
- Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions.
- The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back.
- Behavior grows better before it grows worse.
- The easy way out usually leads back in.
- The cure can be worse than the disease. Faster is slower.
- Cause and effect are not closely related in time and space.
- Small changes can produce big results.
- You can have your cake and eat it too - but not at once.
- Dividing an elephant in half does not produce two small elephants. There is no blame.
Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions.
We love to solve problems. There is feeling of satisfaction that occurs when we lay that last puzzle piece, reach a decision or solve a difficult problem. The problem is that every “problem” we face today, in education, in the environment, even in our personal lives owes it very existence to a well meaning step we individually or collectively, took yesterday. Decisions we make today often become tomorrow's problems. The solution – engage your community to help identify, frame and solve the problem. A large, diverse group will see the problem from all angles is more likely to anticipate unintended consequences.
The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back.
This is, in systems thinking parlance, “compensating feedback”. This happens in conversation, government programs, business and personal wellness efforts. In conversations we often try to argue our point by disagreeing with the other person. Our “push” helps them strengthen their position. We make them think and fight harder. Social programs are rampant with examples of community improvement initiatives that resulted in worse conditions. Government aims to improve the living conditions for a group in one part of town result is more people moving into the area, placing an unsupportable burden on the systems in place. Beware of the word “intervention”. If you see it or hear it know that what it really means is “we will push hard” and be ready to experience the consequence. To avoid this, let the system find its own solutions.
Heed Margaret Wheatley counsel:
… a living system forms from shared interests, all change results from a change in meaning, every living system is free to choose whether it changes and, systems contain their own solutions.
The role of leadership is to invite people in, engage the community and create a safe environment where ideas can grow.
Behavior grows better before it grows worse.
The easy way out usually leads back in.
The cure can be worse than the disease.
Faster is slower.
Cause and effect are not closely related in time and space.
Small changes can produce big results - but the areas of highest leverage are often the least obvious.
You can have your cake and eat it too - but not at once.
Dividing an elephant in half does not produce two small elephants.
There is no blame.
In a complex adaptive system there is no separate “other”. Everything and everyone is connected and together we co-create the whole system. Sometimes we have difficulty with this. We reflex to blame, we deflect, and deny. Its hard to take full responsibility for something that seems to be outside of our control without trying to control everything. It can feel like two competing ideas and for many that feeling is uncomfortable.
The cure lies with the relationships with the very people we typically blame for the problems we are trying to solve.
The challenge, in this century, is being brave and making the choice to invite those we see as adversaries, into the process. Inviting community into problem solving and decision making won’t rock the boat as many fear. Rather they will provide the ballast to keep an even keel in any storm.