The ‘Thou Shalt Nots’ of Systems Change
Enthusiasm for systems change is not new, and a broader historical perspective will help systems change enthusiasts learn from the past what NOT to do: replicate the ineffective mindsets and engineering approaches that have defined so much of the systems change work in our sectors.
Jan. 14, 2021
We are currently witnessing a new wave of systems enthusiasm among philanthropic and development organizations eager to be identified as system leaders, with a host of implementing organizations and development partners aligning around reinvigorated calls for “systems change.” But systems change is not new: since the beginning of the last century, disciplines ranging from biology to psychology adopted system perspectives to, as Magnus Ramage and Karen Shipp put in their historical reflection on systems thinkers, “make sense of the complexity of the world [by looking] at it in terms of wholes and relationships rather than splitting it down into its parts and looking at each in isolation.”
In 1956, Ross Ashby wrote that the new systems science of Cybernetics “offers the hope of providing the essential methods by which to attack the ills—psychological, social, economic—which at present are defeating us by their intrinsic complexity.” Utopia seemed to be within mankind’s grasp, as Ashby and other cyberneticians expanded this discipline beyond machines, applying systems thinking to everything from organizations and medicine to the “reengineering” of entire countries. And in 1966, inspired by the new possibilities of space travel that emerged from systems science, Senator Gaylord Nelson introduced his vision of “A Space Age Trajectory To The Great Society” by asking:
“Mr. President, why can not the same [scientists and engineers] who can figure out a way to put a man in space figure out a way to keep him out of jail? Why cannot the engineers who can move a rocket to Mars figure out a way to move people through our cities and across the country without the honors of modern traffic and the concrete desert of our highway systems? Why cannot the scientists who can cleanse instruments to spend germ free years in space devise a method to end the present pollution of air and water here on earth?”
Within a few years, system analysis contracts created a multi-billion dollar industry driven, as Ida Hoos put it, by the “mythology” of Nelson’s proposal and an “aura of precision lent by a plethora of formulas, charts, and diagrams.” Hoos argued that this new mantra of engineering systems change was “exploited by a myriad of vested business and professional interests, and fostered by government officials eager to be identified with and to take advantage of advanced concepts of management science.”
But does this perspective inform effective action? After all, despite ambitious intentions and great efforts, the utopian Great Society did not emerge. Indeed, the convergence of social problems like COVID-19, systemic racism, food insecurity, and education disparities only further confound our efforts to achieve positive social outcomes. Have the supply of social problems increased and exceeded the supply of otherwise effective system solutions? Is system thinking a naïve mythology rather than a framework for bringing about effective solutions? Are we implementing the principles of systems thinking in ineffective ways?
We recently hosted a “Frank Conversation about Systems” with senior decision-makers from the philanthropic and development sectors to explore these questions. And although the conversation found no consensus on the first two, the group identified a long list of pathological behaviors upheld by numerous organizations deemed incompatible with a system perspective, what we’ve come to call the “Thou Shalt Nots” of systems thinking. For those committed to adopting system perspectives in their work and in their organizations, we offer the following account of our “frank conversation” as a reality check intended to ground decisions in a realistic assessment of the opportunities and potential stumbling blocks.
We’ve organized these stumbling blocks into four key areas: Processes, Cognition and Attitudes, Values, and Roles and Success Criteria.
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The ‘Thou Shalt Nots’ of Systems Change Enthusiasm for systems change is not new, and a broader historical perspective will help systems change enthusiasts learn from the past what NOT to do: replicate the ineffective mindsets and engineering approaches that have defined so much of the systems change work in our sectors. By Christian Seelos, Sara Farley & Amanda L. Rose Jan. 14, 2021The ‘Thou Shalt Nots’ of Systems Change