Pros and cons of thinking systemically

One of the challenges I have in trying to figure out how to effect change (as discussed in my last post) is that I can’t figure out where to start. And part of the reason for that is that I tend to have a systemic top-level way of thinking about situations. So I see these large-scale problems, and can’t figure out the incremental interventions that might start changing the system.

An example: I was talking with a friend yesterday about how to change the education system, and how to get new teaching techniques spread widely to teachers across the country. And I started wondering about how to deal with teacher unions, and the lack of incentive a tenured teacher has in doing anything new, because that would mean extra work for them, and it’s not like they’re going to get paid more for changing how they teach. You could require that they adopt new techniques but that doesn’t necessarily lead to the best outcomes for the students either, because teachers have to invest themselves in what they’re teaching to be effective. So now, instead of having to fix the problem of how to spread new teaching techniques to teachers, I’ve escalated the problem in my head to phasing out teacher unions, and how to design an incentive structure for teachers that reflects student outcomes. Yeah, that’s a little harder.

Note where I said “in my head” in my last sentence – I think what prevents me from effecting change on these difficult questions is that I look for more general system issues and float up to higher abstraction layers until I’m completely untethered (Joel would call me an Architecture Astronaut). Instead of looking for what can I fix right now to start to make things better, I despair if I can’t come up with a general solution to the wider systemic problems that I think are potential causes of the immediate situation.

On the other hand, I believe this sort of system thinking has its benefits in arguing against some quick fixes. A recent example was an email debate where people were arguing that policemen (and even citizens) should be equipped with assault rifles so they were better prepared for incidents like what happened in Paris. And I flipped out. As I put it, the counterfactual isn’t just “what would police and civilians do without such guns in a terrorist incident?”- it also includes “what will police and civilians do with those guns in the 99.999% of the time there isn’t a terrorist incident?”. When people look for quick fixes, they often fail to see how that quick fix can have unintended consequences; in this case, the militarization of the police has led to a downturn in trust between citizens and police, which leads to more incidents of police over-reaction. We are poisoning the normal 99% activities of the police (day-to-day peacekeeping) to potentially help with a very rare exception case (terrorism).

So it’s been interesting having these recent reminders of the advantages and disadvantages to thinking in the systemic way that I do. I need to remember the downsides of ascending into the stratosphere when talking about problems, and think about what is the smallest thing I can do to start moving the system in the right direction today (or, alternatively, pair myself with a fixer). And when caught in the rush to make a quick fix, I need to remember the value of stepping back and thinking through what other parts of the system this fix will touch, and how they might be affected.

P.S. On applying appropriate interventions to effect systemic change, I would like to figure out how to design stories (or metrics that tell a story) as a way of doing that. In other words, if I see systemic problems, but can’t figure out what immediate changes to make to fix the system, maybe I can craft a story to show where I think the system should be, and get people in the organization to believe that story. Once they believe, they will figure out the individual interventions they can make to their situations that will start moving things towards the future system vision. This is high-level organizational judo, to be sure, and I haven’t figured it out yet, but I’ve seen it done a few times, and it’s definitely a skill I want to develop: tell the story and create the future.

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