Tag Archives: Systems-thinking

On Meeting the World Where It’s At

I’ve always loved the practice of harm reduction in public health work. The concept is, rather than ask or expect people to change, we recognize that they are going to do the things that they are going to do, and so we put practices in place that at the very least will help people to not do more harm to themselves than necessary. To illustrate an example, drug users are a common group in which the harm reduction model is used, where organizations not only offer resources to help people stop using drugs, they also recognize that while people are using, it’s important to provide things like clean needles and safe spaces to reduce any further harm.

I find that I have been generally dogmatic in my opinions around what I expect the world and people to be. I believe that people should be more discerning, caring, human-centered, insert myriad other words to describe conscious and compassionate living practices. I believe that companies should be more responsible to their employees, in their supply chains, and to the environment. I believe that government’s predominant purpose should be to set a level playing field for all of its citizens so that every person has the opportunity to achieve greatness without systemic and institutional obstacles in their way.

But what purpose does rose-colored glasses of idealism really serve? The world isn’t going to change overnight, and many will even argue that it shouldn’t. So all you are left with is judgment and disappointment that soon slips into cynicism and jadedness. To be a great leader, you must meet the world where it is at. Like the practice of harm reduction, recognizing the steps, however small, and however long they take, even if it means just keeping the status quo in order to avoid any further harm, is an important part of the change process. It’s not holding people to your sometimes righteous and unreasonably high standards, even if those standards come from the genuinely good place of wanting the world to be better than it is. It is understanding why things function the way they do, and however frustrating and sometimes painful, it is pandering to those ways, even if you disagree with them, so that you will be able to start to move the needle.

Practicing radical incrementalism is a helpful way to navigate and strive for your idea of what should be while also being rooted in reality. Radical incrementalism is exactly what it sounds like, making radical, strategically mapped out, micro-shifts that don’t completely disrupt the existing paradigm at once, but slowly and methodically over time. Instead of taking the revolutionary approach of wanting to tear everything down and start over, employing a tactic of radical incrementalism may get you much closer to the just and equitable world that you want to see.

As a caveat and a confession, as practical as this all sounds, writing this was hard for me, because I feel that so much does need to change now and that not making those changes immediately has profound and deleterious effects on people’s lives and wellbeing, and the revolutionary in me sometimes feels like all of this is just a fancy excuse for conceding or giving up. But in marrying the fantasy with the practical, I realize that to be a successful leader in these complex times, we need to be well versed in reality, recognizing there are many players with many stakes, that at many times are at odds with one another, and to be productive and effective we need work within it’s confines, rather than without, to successfully make the change we want to see.

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Navigating human complexity

Navigating complexity requires a mix of systems-thinking and human-centered thinking. There are a lot of different types of complexities – human, organizational, systemic. This is going to be a series exploring some different approaches to recognizing, getting comfortable with, and understanding complexity.

Navigating complexity among people and relationships

In their book Switch, Dan and Chip Heath dedicate a section of the book to the concept that when you’re facing what looks like a people problem, it’s often actually an environment or situation problem. A simple example of what this means is illustrated in an excerpt from their book: “When some guy cuts you off in traffic, you probably think, instinctively: What a jerk. (Or perhaps your inner voice is more vulgar.) What you almost certainly don’t think to yourself is, Gosh, I wonder what’s wrong that he is in such a hurry. It’s not hard to see why we don’t think that – it seems kind of naive, as if we’re making an excuse for a bad person. But think about your own behavior. Think of a time when you were driving so crazily that others would have been justified to curse you. Was your crazy driving on that day a manifestation of your true character (i.e., you’re a jerk at the core)? Or was it sparked by the situation you were in?”

When people do a bad job, lack motivation, even do bad things, we often attribute it to their character. It’s easier that way than to take the time and make the effort to try to distill the different factors that might be contributing to their actions. Navigating complexity often rears its head when you find yourself up against challenges with people, and like the excerpt shows, our knee jerk reaction is generally one of the following –they’re ignorant, they’re an idiot, or they’re evil.  But that’s too simple. People are complex, and we are all trying to navigate equally complex systems. And this doesn’t need to be just one individual person, it could be a group, or a community. The same can be said when thinking about behavior change or movement building.

So how do we shift our thinking from going to an immediate assumption of badness when we encounter people who in one way or another, aren’t living up to our expectations? You can start by practicing one part curiosity and one part human-centeredness.

Curiosity is the antidote to judgment. Taking a position of genuine curiosity necessitates the openness needed to properly excavate the situation and get to the heart of the matter. By approaching someone as a puzzle instead of thinking you already know the answer, you allow them to hold your hand as they walk your through their complexities. This is the best safeguard against incorrect assumptions. When you catch yourself assuming, or thinking you know the reason for something, ask a question instead. It’s rare to have real, straight forward conversations with people, and often they are scared to be up front, especially when it comes to their challenges. So if you take the initiative, and commit to having open, honest, curious conversations, and ask questions, what seems complex on the outside, can be decoded for you.

This aligns very much with taking a human-centered approach, where you put the person at the center and create the intervention around and for them. This isn’t about making excuses for someone, it’s about understanding why, because then, you might be able to do something productive about it. In management, for instance, it could be that they intrinsically lack motivation, or it could be that they weren’t set up for success. And if they weren’t set up for success, you have the ability to do something about it.

So next time you’re faced with a person or a group that you can’t seem to wrap your head around, instead of writing them off, realize that between human complexity, and the complex world we live in, take the time to understand, before you make your decision.

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A Systems-Thinking Leader

An integral skill of the modern leader is the ability to be a systems-thinker. It is important to use systems-thinking when developing new policies, creating new processes, developing new programs, and addressing current problems and challenges.

Working on cultivating your systems-thinking requires stepping back and constantly taking a holistic approach, where you identify and map out the system you are navigating in order to understand the bigger picture. People, processes, and structures all exist and interact within systems, and it is understanding how each effects and influences the other that will help you to gain a greater understanding for an issue at hand.

This practice can be incredibly hard as we navigate complex and often times convoluted systems that sometimes demand immediate response, but taking the time to understand the whole context is often the first and most important step in intentionally practicing systems-thinking.

Systems-thinking and people

Systems-thinking requires taking a human-centered approach, since at the end of the day it is humans who create and must navigate systems. You must not only be asking questions like who are the stakeholders? But also, when making decisions, setting up businesses, policies, or projects, you should also be looking at the greater whole, asking – what would it be like to be a person living with a disability needing to navigate this system? A woman? Someone from a minority background? Someone with children? People from varying socio-economic backgrounds? Someone living with a chronic or terminal disease? Someone who identifies as LQBTQ? People who observe different religions?

Putting people at the center of your system analysis is a good way to make sure that they aren’t forgotten. It’s strange how easy it can be to map out a system and completely forget the people that the system effects. When you look at plans that are carefully organized but impossible to realistically execute, you can see where the people aspect of the thinking was left out of the equation.

Empathy is a skill that will be addressed in a later article, but it’s important to note that working on cultivating and enhancing your tendency towards empathy is a good way to make sure that you never forget about the “people experience” part of your work.

Systems-thinking and addressing problems

Our world has increasingly become one of instant gratification, creating Band-Aid solutions to try to immediately solve superficial parts of the problems we are confronting. But very rarely does a problem exist in a vacuum, and without thinking about how this specific problem plays into the larger whole, you are only creating, at best, a temporary fix to a more systemic issue.

To practice systems-thinking when addressing a challenge or problem, you need to both look back at the root of the problem, and understand the many different factors that contributed to its manifestation, recognizing that is a part of an overall system and did not occur in isolation. Then, you need to practice “emerging future” thinking, exploring different ways to address the problem as part of the system as opposed to reacting to a specific part, and brainstorming what outcomes those different interventions might have, both in the short and long term. By not taking this approach, you run the risk of short-sightedness and generating unintended consequences.

This is the first of what will be several pieces about systems-thinking, and tools will soon be available to help you cultivate your systems-thinking approach.

Practice: As you are either designing new systems (processes, policies, etc), create a map of the system you are trying to develop and the other systems that it might coincide with. Make sure you create as comprehensive a picture as possible so that you can identify gaps before you implement. If you are trying to solve an already existing problem, take a step back and make sure your solution has taken into account the whole history to what contributed to the problem and maps out the short and long term future using the proposed solution.

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