How can you break down the challenge of leading complex systems change into manageable categories?
An emerging framework inspired by Ken Wilber’s “theory of everything” enables leaders to organize their thinking into three areas.[i] The framework – developed by Heather McLeod Grant, Chris Block, and Lance Fors in partnership with the American Leadership Forum of Silicon Valley – characterizes changes that must occur at three levels: individual (I); collective including relationships, organizations and networks (WE), and systems you want to impact (IT).[ii]
Here are important elements to focus on at each level from a systemic point of view.[iii]
At the individual level, help yourself and others:
- Become aware of how we unintentionally contribute to the problem – not just the solution. The purpose of uncovering responsibility for the problem is not to shift blame inwards, but to empower ourselves to critically assess the impact of our own intentions, thinking, and behavior. Transforming the collective and the larger system begins with influencing the level over which we have the greatest control – ourselves.
- Harness the cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and spiritual dimensions of systems leadership. Not only is it helpful to cultivate a new way of thinking, but also to release the emotional attachments we have to our beliefs and assumptions, approach systems thinking as a collective not just individual activity, and recognize that – in line with many wisdom traditions – all parts of a system are connected and interdependent.
- Develop character traits such as curiosity, compassion, vision, courage, patience, and persistence that strengthen constructive connections and weaken dysfunctional ones.
At the collective level:
- Develop common ground, including a shared vision, common understanding of current reality, agreed-upon metrics, and a clear decision-making process.
- Engage diverse stakeholders to think, not just, convene systemically. This means supporting people to recognize that optimizing a system means optimizing the relationships among the parts – not each of their parts individually – which in turn frequently requires individual compromise on behalf of the whole. In order to develop this recognition, help people distinguish systems from conventional thinking and uncover often non-obvious interdependencies among different parts of the system (see systems level below).
- Focus people’s thinking on answering a why question such as “Why have we been unable to solve a particular problem or achieve a particular goal despite our best efforts?”
- Frame systems mapping as a path to answer the why question, catalyze more productive conversations, and identify high leverage interventions.
Finally, at the systems level:
- Understand that systems behave and evolve in circular instead of linear ways.
- Distinguish problem symptoms from underlying causes and address root causes of problems wherever possible
- Beware falling into common systems traps, such as implementing quick fixes, which reduce performance over time.
- Identify high leverage interventions that produce sustainable system-wide improvement, and recognize that these solutions tend to require up-front investment and take time to yield results.
- Look for high leverage solutions in such areas as people’s beliefs and assumptions, tradeoffs between what they say they want and what they are actually accomplishing, and their commitment to continuous learning.
- Design systemic theories of change, i.e. ones that mirror the circular ways in which systems behave and evolve.
Strong winds of change are blowing across the U.S. and the global commons. If we want to steer in the direction of a world that works for everyone in sustainable ways, we have to create and align changes at all three levels of system with this end in mind.
[i] Ken Wilber, A Theory of Everything, Shambhala Publications, 2000
[ii] Heather McLeod Grant, Chris Block, Lance Fors, “I/We/It: Leadership for Social Change”, https://www.openimpact.io/insights2/, Creative Commons License, 2016
[iii] David Peter Stroh, Systems Thinking for Social Change: A Practical Guide for Solving Complex Problems, Avoiding Unintended Consequences, and Achieving Lasting Results, Chelsea Green, 2015