THE MAGIC OF SYSTEMS THINKING!
Hope this mail finds all of you in good spirits amongst all that you wish for in your life.
Some of you may know that I have been away from Singapore since 2007 being part of a programme here in Botswana where I had
been assisting the government learn and appreciate the use of the five disciplines in dealing with persistent or stubborn issues that face
the nation. These range from issues such as unemployment and budget deficits to standards of education levels to HIV/AIDs, work
productivity among others. The use of the five disciplines till today, continue to amaze me the ease with which they help anyone
provide clarity on why issues resist change and what causes its sustained resistance.
While, I have not been publishing the lessons here on the NewsFlash for a while, I had been gathering and pulling the lessons together
on a blog that I keep on LinkedIn (http://sheilasingapore.com/) and developing the materials judiciously on Case Study No. 25 of this
website. These have now grown by several hundreds of pages. The former is still new and is being developed into a compendium of
My focus and attention these days is in assisting governments in the planning of systemic development of their regional, sectoral and
national strategies. Developing organizational plans and programmes for departments and performance management (individuals) and
project monitoring may be the next steps from this process. Learning about the five disciplines is a first step in the (20-part) process of
teams that work with me.
Today was one of those days when I seem to be living one of my dream days. We may not see it when we are in it, but as I step back
from the day, it fits to a tee.
I had made a visit to a media house, where I was meeting someone I had come to seek his assistance on how one may reach one's
customers through the media. He is a young person, perhaps in his early thirties. Let me refer to him as YP here. I am planning to
expand my practice in the region and was working on the idea of running one-day programmes for the public at large here and was at
the media house to explore my options in placing some adverts with them.
I am writing here the conversation as it happened as it would allow us to appreciate how as conversations go back and forth between
individuals, we apppreciate a little better how thoughts change when talking about systems thinking and it can excite people. But I was
particularly struck by a couple of epiphanies that was happening for the both of us as the conversation unfolded.
YP: So what is that you do?
Sheila: I do a work involving the discipline of systems thinking (immediately most minds think it is computer systems) to deal with
(He did not expect the last two words. Immediately YP's eyes puckered up to show he is confused.)
Sheila: Well, let's think HIV/AIDs infection rates or water shortages faced by the country. For how many years or had it been decades
would you say since we tried to tackle it?
YP: Yes, you are right. Well, from the time they started presenting themselves in the 80s and 60s respectively.
Sheila: How have such issues behaved over time till today?
[we both then pour over a piece of paper, where I draw the X and Y axis and while today's situation on HIV/AIDs show a significant
levels of decline from its peak in the 1990s, it has not found itself back to zero yet. It is hovering in the range of 15-30% rates of the
population. YP watches the graph and agrees quickly. I then pose another question].
Sheila: How would we draw the graph of the investments we have been pouring into this programme?
(again we pour ourselves over the same graph and draw a graph that shows, the rate of investments over time show an unrelenting
steady incline over the years. That today they are surpassing levels that we have imagined was necessary. YP's eyes light up as he
now sees what a stubborn problem means).
Sheila (continues): Given the rate at which we have been pouring investments sure we should have been successful at bringing it
down, .... by now. Yes?
YP: Yes. That's true (and he nods quietly, waiting in anticipation for the next question).
Sheila: And then here's how we really tell we have a stubborn problem to start with. Supposing the money was not there, what would
the (real trend) for HIV/AIDs look like?
YP (adds slowly): It would have pretty much looked like the graph over time of the rate we have been pouring money in to deal with
it - an unrelentless increase than can quite quickly spread itself even beyond the borders of the country and I dare say, eventually the
Sheila: Yes, you are right! That pattern that you see in front of you is caused by a vicious circle of causality that keeps pushing the
trend one way, upwards and faster, like an exponential curved line. It becomes stubborn or resistant to change efforts. That graph is a
sign that whatever causes the rate of increase of infection HIV (notice I did not say the next infection) is no longer a linear or straight-
line causality but the causalities have now closed itself in and assumes a reinforcing behaviour like a wheel that does not stop, gaining
greater levels of force and speed in each iteration of the cycle of causality. Think hurricane. This is the battle we are fighting.
However, pouring water on the fire when we do not know what is causing the fire to keep coming back, is money down the drain. The
fire will not stop raging. And the programmes remain unsuccessful.
[The phone rings. YP is clearly irritated by the distraction. He answers it and returns quickly back to the discussion. Remember he is
still at work!]
YP: Now I get it! Wow! My this is so exciting to see it.
(he pauses and then continues)
YP: What about if we use this work to look at other current concerns we face in a country? One thing that bothers me is the declining
levels of standards of education we face in our public schools in the country. Each year we see that the grades of new graduands from
the system, achieve lower standards of education compared to previous years (and then he adds - he now has a new language) despite
as a government and as a country we had been pouring more money each year. How would we use something like this to understand
why that may be happening?
[When he opened the new question, I felt suddenly, that I was back at my sessions, and that felt really good - despite I was well aware
that I was sitting in a cubicle of one of the front desk officers in a media house. It still was somehow befitting. I allowed it.]
Sheila: This story is classic to one of the laws that we hold in this work, which is the area of highest strategic leverage is one that is
the least obvious. Today, as Ministry of Education, the Minister sees teachers as a means to assist students raise their standards of
education. And teachers carry out this role diligently believing that should they pour 'from their container' to the 'container of the child',
the child with sufficient hard work should reach their standards. Sometimes this strategy works. Most times it does not.
[At that point, I draw on another piece of paper a quick set of factors that distinguishes education from learning.]
Sheila: Education is a physical and mental process very much influenced by external factors that we can see and touch, such as the
quality of the infrastructure, teachers, books, stationery and general education environment including those we set at home, all of which
is a mandate a Ministry of Education can easily set for itself. An area however that sits next to impossible and so falls easily outside
the mandate of education is learning. Learning unlike education is a purely emotional process and very personal.
['Learning' is not a one-off process that happens when we buy a school book that we think the child needs for his education or
driving the child back to his books rather than play. It is a process that is largely driven by the individual himself or herself and
cannot be led by an external force. It comes from an inner drive spurred on by sense of curiosity and a hunger to want to learn
something for the sake of seeking knowledge for itself (learning about something as it is) and not what it may do (how) for the
owner of the knowledge. I can learn about 'the principle of moments' in physics, because it will assist me in using a screwdriver
to do things with less effort. Or I can learn about 'moments' and be stunned by how such knowledge could have grown in
people's minds so as to be able to write it down for others to see, inspire and therefore learn from. It is an inspiration.]
Sheila (continues): However the bedrock of that emotional development is a function of the child's relationship with his parent.
When the child sees that his parent's exhibit two things i.e. firstly the parent's live their lives as if they are still on a journey of learning
rather than having arrived at a destination and show comfort in being on the journey. This experience is often a product of an individual
who also has grown to believe in himself. When one does not hold such a belief, we find having to stay on a journey becomes a
restless activity. This is unlike the sense of comfort we have when we arrive to our home or destination. Secondly, when parents
believe in themselves, it often becomes easier for the parent to believe in his child as well. A child that sees a parent who believes in
the child, often finds it easier for itself to grow to believe in itself. This is the final and important step in 'cementing' that self-belief.
When parents do not spend the time with the child, as it may be for parents that stay apart or grow a child up single-handedly, such
parents will find it harder to relay such emotions and beliefs to his child in a consistent or disciplined way.
Sheila (continues): A child who does not believe in himself, will find learning for the sake of learning a difficult experience. Learning
becomes a means to another end. Not an end in itself. The result: School grades decline.
Sheila (continues): But the Ministry of Education thinks it does not have a 'mandate or control on all of the above area'. It sees this
area as 'beyond its control'. It therefore has started on a battle (in education) that is not designed to win but to just get by.
Sheila (continues): Parents' emotional relationship with a child is a necessary part in nurturing the spirit of learning and it happens
indirectly (hence the 'least obvious'). Teachers play a role as far as in furthering education but can play little beyond that in a space at
trying to replace the role a parent plays in fostering the conditions needed for the spirit of learning to grow for the child itself. Parents
present that space for the spirit to nurture itself.
YP: So, that's why a Ministry may not have much impact through its programmes. Parents have bcome the missing key in the
equation. Not in doing more of what the Ministry already does. But filling an important role in the child's emotional development.
He pauses again, and then continues.
YP: But, most of us in the country raise our children single-handedly and we focus on seeing our children on a need 'to pay school
fees' basis. How then could we foster such beliefs? I now see this step as happening as next to impossible till parents are more
involved in their child's lives. It is easier for this step to happen when couples are together rather than when they are apart.
[He pauses as he thinks of his next question.]
YP: What causes couples to grow apart rather than grow to be together?
Well, .... you can now guess what happened next! We spent the next hour or so, looking at issues ranging from couples learning to
grow closer, to rates of vehicle accidents on the roads, to private sector growths, to simmering labour strikes, to agricultural outputs, to
rainfall level behaviour, to unemployment levels, to wage levels, to divorces. Both of us did not see the time pass by and literally forgot
that we were right in the middle of a room that deals with front desk media issues.
The learnings on the other hand were non-stop.
And then the following epiphanies began to hit the both of us!
We all know that Systems Thinking is a process of searching for what's causing something to keep coming back at us - a search for
the vicious circles of causality. Each time as we brought ourselves through a different case of circle of causality, we began to realize:
- Epiphany #1: When the practice is carried out in a consistent and disciplined way, it does something to our minds. As we see
circles unfold from the straight-line thinking that we are used to, then almost like 'magic', we find ourselves willing to let go of
whatever we were focused on or tied to (and tends to burgeon and therefore we were not willing to "let them go", be they levels of
poverty, malnutrition, labour and political unrests, unemployment, deaths due to HIV/AIDs, etc.) to seeing 'the bigger picture' of
what's causing us to become bogged down by these issues. It is an experience that causes us to zoom out.
We see the forest now. As well as the trees. We now realize that the cause of the problem is sometimes not in the "enemy out
there" (someone out there for whom we blamed for our troubles). These circles often reveal that the enemy was also within
ourselves all this time. A lot of times, this experience leaves us with surprise and typically disbelief. However, surprisingly,
when we realize we are the cause of our own problems, it also leaves us now with a greater sense of control of the issue. That's
why it becomes important to bring the lessons of this work to the man on the street.
- Epiphany #2: The effect of zooming out begins to also help us in the process of stretching or as we say broadening the mind.
It is more than just joining the dots or arrows or seeing the details of a circular causality. Here's the magic: It is the ability of the
mind to see itself zooming out of a situation. This experience is not an ordinary experience. It is new way to the mind. We
usually drill inwards. Not out. It is unusual. And when the mind sees itself zooming out, something else happens to the mind.
It learns to let go of fear trappings we use to overcome (if we don't then we will be in trouble ...) or sometimes avoiding the
problems or the willingness to face the undiscussables (we are afraid to see or hear why our programmes may not work
All of these actions are caused by deep-seated fears that we hold subconsciously. These now go away. We then begin to
realize the baselessness of straight line cause-effect thinking in dealing with vicious problems and so is an overbearing focus on
'core mandates' or missions or goals. We see how they pay attention to parts of a circle of causality - and why such thinking
would not take us far from the realities we are facing. We will also begin to see easily how we will be led back to the problem
again. Our minds are now stretched.
- Epiphany #3: The immediate reaction to the above is, once the mind has been 'stretched' in this way, it does not quite as
easily snap back to where it was before.
When these begin to happen to us, we are now ready to find other vicious circles and how they are inter-related and to move to the next
step which is to learn to turn around these circles of causality.
If these do not happen to us, then systemic thinking has not quite worked "its magic" on us as yet. But do not give up yet.
Do not blame the tools of or the discipline of systems thinking or yourself for not experiencing "the magic". Blame, however, the
consistency of the practice of that discipline. This is often the reason systemic thinking defies immediate replicability. The ability to
analyse comes with the willingness to be disciplined by the discipline of Systems Thinking.
We hope you enjoyed this edition. Do talk about it within your communities and share your reflections with us.
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