Mastering System Change

[Also via the Systems Studio]

Mastering System Change

Organizations are increasingly turning to system change to tackle big social problems. But systems are complex, and mastering the process requires observation, patience, and reflection. To begin, here are two approaches to pursuing system change.

(Illustration by Kevin Mercer)

Gone’s for once the old magician with his countenance forbidding;
I’m now master, I’m tactician, all his ghosts must do my bidding.
Know his incantation, spell and gestures too;
By my mind’s creation wonders shall I do.

from “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” by J. W. von Goethe1

In J. W. von Goethe’s poem “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” an old sorcerer leaves his young apprentice behind to clean the house. The boy soon tires of his chore and uses a magic spell to enlist the help of a broom. The broom, however, starts pouring pails and pails of water on the floor. The boy is unable to control the broom, and the house is flooded. When the sorcerer returns, he quickly breaks the spell, cleans up the water, and warns the boy not to use forces he doesn’t understand and can’t control.

The poor young fellow had what we might call today an unfortunate encounter with complex causality. Instead of creating “wonders” by commanding a bewitched broom whose powers he neither understood nor could control, the apprentice’s actions caused chaos and damage.

We were reminded of the apprentice’s story when reflecting on the growing interest and sometimes outright infatuation with system change. Like the sorcerer’s broom, any system that prides itself on some minimal complexity is difficult to understand or to control. Do we—like the sorcerer’s apprentice—ask for trouble when we intend to change systems? Yes, we do!

But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t attempt to change complex systems for the better. What it does mean is that we must be respectful of the difficulty and dangers of trying to do so. In this article, we want to arm you with effective “spells and gestures” to ward off some of the troubles you may encounter when undertaking system change. We will also offer two different approaches, or archetypes, for pursuing system change that we have identified during the course of our research, and by doing so provide examples of how organizations can master the cause-effect architecture of systems and enact effective change.

The Apprentice’s Dilemma

Continues in source: Mastering System Change

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