Bridgeway Partners Blog

Systems Thinking Leverages Change

Systems thinking helps people achieve sustainable, breakthrough change in four ways that are distinct from conventional approaches. It shifts the bases for people’s:

  1. Motivation to change;
  2. Willingness to collaborate;
  3. Ability to focus limited resources
  4. Commitment to continuous learning

Motivation to Change

Conventional approaches to change stimulate motivation through some combination of aspiration and fear. Aspiration points to the desirability of a better future. Fear seeks to steer us away from a future we want to avoid. While both can be powerful motivators, they miss a critical catalyst – our responsibility, however unintentional, for where we are now.

As Peter Senge pointed out in The Fifth Discipline, “The building of a shared vision lacks a critical underpinning if practiced without systems thinking … The problem lies not in shared visions themselves so long as they are developed carefully. The problem lies in our reactive orientation to current reality.” When people fail to see their responsibility for their present circumstances, they 1) tend to assume that their primary work is to change others in the system – not themselves, and 2) promote solutions that optimize their part of the system – not the system as a whole.

Systems thinking motivates people to change because it shows them how the problems they face result from the unintended consequences of their own actions. It empowers them to change because they discover that the greatest control they have over the system is through their own intentions, thinking, and behavior.

Willingness to Collaborate

The typical call to collaboration is based on obligation or faith – people are supposed to work together because doing so leads to better results. However, when efforts at collaboration lead to finger-pointing or apparently irreconcilable differences of opinion, obligation and faith tend to be replaced by frustration and even cynicism.

Helping people think systemically gives them a stronger basis for collaboration because they uncover how they collectively create the unsatisfying results they experience. More specifically, they discover how solutions that work for them in the short-term can make it more difficult for others to succeed, and vice versa. They learn that they are all in the same boat, and the only way to design a boat that works for all of them is to collaborate on a more effective design.

Ability to Focus Limited Resources

“When it rains, it pours.” Often, the problem people face is that they have too many problems. Moreover, they have too few resources to address all the problems. The common solution in this case is to do as much as they can as fast as they can. This usually leads to overwhelm, confusing and ever-shifting priorities, overwhelm, and eventually burnout.

By contrast, systems thinking operates under the premise that many presenting problems are symptomatic of a relatively few underlying causes or leverage points. It shows people how their problems are interconnected and sourced by a common set of root causes. As a result, it guides them to identify and focus on the fewest changes they can make that are likely to produce the greatest improvement in system-wide performance over time.   

Commitment to Continuous Learning

Because people do not see how they unwittingly contribute to the problems they face, they also do not see their responsibility for learning about the impacts of their solutions.  They often believe that learning is important – for others who are the sources of their problems in the first place.

Systems thinking stimulates people to engage in their own continuous learning for several reasons. First, it helps them take responsibility for the problems as well as the solutions. Second, it illuminates the inherent complexity in systems and tendency for even the most well-intended actions to have unintended consequences. Third, inherent uncertainties and changing conditions inevitably require them to take in new information and adjust their assumptions and actions over time.

In summary, systems thinking is a powerful catalyst for change. The principles and tools of systems thinking deepen people’s motivation to change, their willingness to collaborate with each other, their ability to focus limited resources, and their commitment to continuous learning.

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