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Systems Work in Denmark: Lessons from Abroad

Last week I gave three introductions to systems thinking in Denmark. All were inspired by a nation-wide project to prevent home burglaries, a problem three times more prevalent there than in neighboring countries. The project’s facilitators – including the corporate foundation of a major insurance company, Denmark’s foundation knowledge center, and a change consulting firm – had made tremendous progress over the past five years in reducing home burglaries using a systems approach. The range of stakeholders addressing the issue had expanded, insights about the causes of the problem had deepened, and previous solutions ranging from sentencing burglars and providing more sophisticated home alarm systems had evolved into a comprehensive systems approach that combined multiple initiatives, close collaboration, and continuous learning.  

I was invited to expand on the principles and benefits of a systems approach through introductory presentations to participants in a 250-person national burglary prevention conference, a group of foundation CEOs, and a group of social change agents. In speaking with all of them, I was struck by which points resonated most with these diverse audiences.  Here are two big take-aways:

  1. Thinking systemically is very natural and familiar to people once they learn more about it. I liken it to “child’s play” where we have an intuitive grasp as a kid that our parents are likely to pick up after us if we don’t do so ourselves. Such seemingly sophisticated concepts as nonlinear cause-effect (“If I don’t pick up after myself, then someone else will”), time delay (“I just have to wait them out”), and shifting the burden to the intervenor (in this case, parents) are already very familiar to us when we are young. So, being exposed to them as adults is more about giving language and framing to what we already know than learning something entirely new.
  2. This natural way of approaching the world comprises a set of paradoxes that challenge us to think both/and along several dimensions:

  • Long-term and short-term. While it is tempting to think of systems change as long-term, we forget that it also requires us to deliver short-term successes within a long-term context. The most effective short-term successes typically pave the way for better outcomes by generating new relationships, new capacities for thinking together and working with differences, and new insights.
  • Big-picture and highly personal. People typically assume that effective systems work involves engaging more stakeholders, identifying more factors, and embracing more complexity. At the same time, changing systems is highly personal work in that the greatest control any one of us has over a system is over our own intentions, our own thinking, and our own behavior.
  • Complex and simple. Thinking that integrates a longer timeframe with more stakeholders and factors challenges us to embrace complexity. However, as Einstein points out, it is equally important to “make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Effective systems work helps us uncover the essence of a problem so that we identify where the leverage lies to solve it. This often boils down to surfacing and challenging the beliefs and assumptions that lead to undesirable results and questioning what we most deeply want the system to accomplish.  
  • Simple and hard. Just because powerful insights can often be relatively simple to identify, this does not necessarily mean they are easy to implement. Systems work can be hard because it asks us to partner with others we would rather control, take responsibility for problems we prefer to blame on others, and incur short-term costs for long-term gains.
  • Objective and subjective. On the one hand, the work entails learning about and applying frameworks, principles, tools, and processes about how systems behave and evolve. On the other hand, it entails cultivating such personal qualities as emotional intelligence, humility, courage, patience, and persistence to bring these objective realities to life.

As the Danes will tell you, the systems journey of remembering what works and embracing both/and thinking is possible and very worthwhile. Over the first five years of the project from 2017-2022, home burglaries declined by nearly 50% from 29,029 to 14,889. The key at this point is to keep reinvesting in what works and build additional momentum. Their successes are now motivating them to considering extending their work upstream – to analyze and address the root causes of what lead different types of burglars to commit their crimes, and downstream – to reduce repeat offenses by formerly incarcerated burglars by developing a penal system more oriented towards rehabilitation than punishment.  

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