Why systems thinking changes everything for activists and reformers
This week, the Guardian ran a very nicely edited ‘long read’ extract from How Change Happens covering some of the book’s central arguments, under the title Radical Thinking Reveals the Secrets of Making Change Happen. Here it is:
Political and economic earthquakes are often sudden and unforeseeable, despite the false pundits who pop up later to claim they predicted them all along – take the fall of the Berlin Wall, the 2008 global financial crisis, or the Arab Spring (and ensuing winter). Even at a personal level, change is largely unpredictable: how many of us can say our lives have gone according to the plans we had as 16-year-olds?
The essential mystery of the future poses a huge challenge to activists. If change is only explicable in the rear-view mirror, how can we accurately envision the future changes we seek, let alone achieve them? How can we be sure our proposals will make things better, and not fall victim to unintended consequences? People employ many concepts to grapple with such questions. I find “systems” and “complexity” two of the most helpful.
A “system” is an interconnected set of elements coherently organised in a way that achieves something. It is more than the sum of its parts: a body is more than an aggregate of individual cells; a university is not merely an agglomeration of individual students, professors, and buildings; an ecosystem is not just a set of individual plants and animals.
A defining property of human systems is complexity: because of the sheer number of relationships and feedback loops among their many elements, they cannot be reduced to simple chains of cause and effect. Think of a crowd on a city street, or a flock of starlings wheeling in the sky at dusk. Even with supercomputers, it is impossible to predict the movement of any given person or starling, but there is order; amazingly few collisions occur even on the most crowded streets.
In complex systems, change results from the interplay of many diverse and apparently unrelated factors. Those of us engaged in seeking change need to identify which elements are important and understand how they interact.
My interest in systems thinking began when collecting stories for my book From Poverty to Power. The light-bulb moment came on a visit to India’s Bundelkhand region, where the poor fishing communities of Tikamgarh had won rights to more than 150 large ponds. In that struggle numerous factors interacted to create change. First, a technological shift triggered changes in behaviour: the introduction of new varieties of fish, which made the ponds more profitable, induced landlords to seize ponds that had been communal. Conflict then built pressure for government action: a group of 12 brave young fishers in one village fought back, prompting a series of violent clashes that radicalized and inspired other communities; women’s groups were organized for the first time, taking control of nine ponds. Enlightened politicians and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) helped pass new laws and the police amazed everyone by enforcing them.
The fishing communities were the real heroes of the story. They tenaciously faced down a violent campaign of intimidation, moved from direct action to advocacy, and ended up winning not only access to the ponds but a series of legal and policy changes that benefited all fishing families.
The neat narrative sequence of cause and effect I’ve just written, of course, is only possible in hindsight. In the thick of the action, no-one could have said why the various actors acted as they did, or what transformed the relative
power of each. Tikamgarh’s experience highlights how unpredictable is the interaction between structures (such as state institutions), agency (by communities and individuals), and the broader context (characterized by shifts in technology, environment, demography, or norms).
Unfortunately, the way we commonly think about change projects onto the future the neat narratives we draw from the past. Many of the mental models we use are linear plans – “if A, then B” – with profound consequences in terms of failure, frustration, and missed opportunities. As Mike Tyson memorably said, “Everyone has a plan ’til they get punched in the mouth”.
Let me illustrate with a metaphor. Baking a cake is a linear “simple” system. All I need do is find a recipe, buy the ingredients, make sure the oven is working, mix, bake, et voila! Some cakes are better than others (mine wouldn’t win any prizes), but the basic approach is fixed, replicable, and reasonably reliable. However bad your cake, you’ll probably be able to eat it.
The trouble is that real life rarely bakes like a cake. Engaging a complex system is more like raising a child. What fate would await your new baby if you decided to go linear and design a project plan setting out activities, assumptions, outputs, and outcomes for the next twenty years and then blindly followed it? Nothing good, probably.
Instead, parents make it up as they go along. And so they should. Raising a child is iterative, an endless testing of
assumptions about right and wrong, a constant adaptation to the evolving nature of the child and his or her relationship with their parents and others. Despite all the “best practice” guides preying on the insecurity of new parents, child-rearing is devoid of any “right way” of doing things. What really helps parents is experience (the second kid is usually easier), and the advice and reassurance of people who’ve been through it themselves – “mentoring” in management speak. Working in complex systems requires the same kind of iterative, collaborative, and flexible approach. Deng Xiaoping’s recipe for China’s take off epitomises this approach: “We will cross the river by feeling the stones under our feet, one by one”.
Systems are in a state of constant change. Jean Boulton, one of the authors of Embracing Complexity, likes to use the metaphor of the forest, which typically goes through cycles of growth, collapse, regeneration, and new growth. In the early part of the cycle’s growth phase, the number of species and of individual plants and animals increases quickly, as organisms arrive to exploit all available ecological niches. The forest’s components become more linked to one another, enhancing the ecosystem’s “connectedness” and multiplying the ways the forest regulates itself and maintains its stability. However, the forest’s very connectedness and efficiency eventually reduce its capacity to cope with severe outside shocks, paving the way for a collapse and eventual regeneration. Jean argues that activists need to adapt their analysis and strategy according to the stage that their political surroundings most closely resemble: growth, maturity, locked-in but fragile, or collapsing.
I was not a quick or easy convert to systems thinking, despite the fact that my neural pathways were shaped by my undergraduate degree in physics, where linear Newtonian mechanics quickly gave way to the more mind-bending world of quantum mechanics, wave particle duality, relativity, and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Similarly, my experience of activism has obliged me to question linear approaches to campaigning, for example, as I hesitantly embraced the realisation that change doesn’t happen like that.
Once I began thinking about systems, I started to see complexity and unpredictable “emergent change” everywhere – in politics, economics, at work, and even in the lives of those around me.
Crises as critical junctures
Change in complex systems occurs in slow, steady processes such as demographic shifts and in sudden, unforeseeable jumps. Nothing seems to change until suddenly it does, a stop–start rhythm that can confound activists. When British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was asked what he most feared in politics, he reportedly replied in his wonderfully patrician style, “Events, dear boy”. Such “events” that disrupt social, political, or economic relations are not just a prime ministerial headache. They can open the door to previously unthinkable reforms.
Such “critical junctures”, as the economists Daron Acemoglu and James A Robinson call them, force political leaders to question their long-held assumptions about what constitutes “sound” policies, and make them more willing to take the risks associated with innovation, as the status quo suddenly appears less worth defending.
Much of the institutional framework we take for granted today was born of the trauma of the Great Depression and the second world war. The disastrous failures of policy that led to these twin catastrophes profoundly affected the thinking of political and economic leaders across the world, triggering a vastly expanded role for government in managing the economy and addressing social ills, as well as precipitating the decolonisation of large parts of the globe.
Similarly, in the 1970s the sharp rise in oil prices (and consequent economic stagnation and runaway inflation) marked the end of the post-war “Golden Age” and gave rise to a turn away from government regulation and to the idealisation of the “free market”. In communist systems, at different moments, political and economic upheaval paved the way for radical economic shifts in China and Vietnam.
Milton Friedman, the father of monetarist economics, wrote: “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”
Naomi Klein, in her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, argues that the right has used shocks much better than the left, especially in recent decades. Klein cites the example of how proponents of private education in the US managed to turn Hurricane Katrina to their advantage: “Within 19 months, New Orleans’ public school system had been almost completely replaced by privately-run charter schools.” According to the American Enterprise Institute, “Katrina accomplished in a day what Louisiana school reformers couldn’t do after years of trying.”
NGOs are not always so nimble in spotting and seizing such opportunities. Three months into the 2011 Egyptian revolution, I attended a meeting of Oxfam International’s chief executive officers (CEOs), at which they spent hours debating whether the uprising in Tahrir Square was likely to lead to a humanitarian crisis. Only then did the penny drop that the protests, upheaval, and overthrow of an oppressive regime were also a huge potential opportunity, at which point the assembled bosses showed admirable speed in allocating budgets for supporting civil society activists in Egypt, and backing it up with advocacy at the Arab League and elsewhere. But by then valuable time had passed; soon the optimism of revolution gave way to the violence and misery of repression.
Some progressive activists engaged in policy advocacy are better attuned to Friedman’s lesson. Within weeks of the appalling Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,100 people in April 2013 an international “Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh” was signed and delivered. A five-year legally binding agreement between global companies, retailers, and trade unions, the accord mandates some astounding breakthroughs: an independent inspection programme supported by the brand-name companies and involving workers and trade unions; the public disclosure of all factories, inspection reports, and corrective action plans; a commitment by signatory brands to fund improvements and maintain sourcing relationships; democratically elected health and safety committees in all factories; and worker empowerment through an extensive training programme, complaints mechanism, and the right to refuse unsafe work.
In hindsight, we can point to several factors to explain how this grisly “shock as opportunity” drove rapid movement toward better regulation:
- A forum on labour rights in Bangladesh (the Ethical Trading Initiative) had already built a high degree of trust
between traditional antagonists (companies, unions, and NGOs). Trust allowed people to get on the phone to each other right away.
- Prior work, underway since 2011, had sketched the outline of a potential accord; the Rana Plaza disaster massively escalated the pressure to act on it.
- A nascent national process (the National Action Plan for Fire Safety) gave outsiders something to support and build on.
Energetic leadership from two new international trade unions (IndustriALL and UNI Global Union) helped get the right people in the room. Perhaps we should add to Friedman’s instruction “to keep alternatives alive and available”: progressive activists also need to build trust and connections among the key individuals who could implement the desired change. I am not suggesting that activists become ambulance chasers, jumping on every crisis to make their point. Rather, we must understand the windows of opportunity provided by “events, dear boy” as critical junctures when our long-term work creating constituencies for change, transforming attitudes and norms, and so on can suddenly come to fruition.
One of the most exciting alternatives to business as usual goes by the name of “positive deviance”.
In December 1991, Jerry and Monique Sternin arrived in Vietnam to work for Save the Children in four communities with children aged under three, most of whom were malnourished. The Sternins asked teams of volunteers to observe in homes where children were poor but well-fed. In every case they found that the mother or father was collecting a number of tiny shrimps, crabs, or snails – making for a portion “the size of one joint of one finger” – from the rice paddies and adding these to the child’s diet.
These “positive deviant” families also instructed the home babysitter to feed the child four or even five times a day, in contrast to most families who fed young children only before parents headed to the rice fields early in the morning and in the late afternoon after returning from a working day. Results were shared on a board in the town hall, and the charts quickly became a focus of attention and buzz. By the end of the first year, 80 per cent of the children in the programme were fully rehabilitated.
In their book, The Power of Positive Deviance, the Sternins, with Richard Pascale, describe how the approach was subsequently applied in 50 countries to everything from decreasing gang violence in inner city New Jersey to reducing sex-trafficking of girls in rural Indonesia. The starting point is to “look for outliers who succeed against the odds”. But who is doing the looking also matters. If external “experts” investigate the outliers and turn the results into a toolkit, little will come of it. When communities make the discovery for themselves, behavioural change can take root – providing what the authors call “social proof”.
Positive deviance capitalises on a hugely energising fact: for any given problem, someone in the community will have already identified a solution. It focuses on people’s assets and knowledge, rather than their lacks and problems. The Sternins recount their experience in Misiones Province, Argentina, where dropout rates were awful. Teachers and principals were hostile to criticism and put the blame on the parents. All that started to change when facilitators asked the “somersault question”: why were dropout rates much lower in some schools? Teachers then agreed to ask the parents at those schools, who rapidly identified teacher attitudes toward parents as the key. The positive deviant teachers were negotiating informal annual “learning contracts” with parents. When many teachers adopted that approach, dropout rates in test schools fell by 50%.
Despite its success, positive deviance remains an outlier in the aid business. The “standard model” of identifying gaps, devising initiatives to fill them, and disseminating the guidance is incredibly hard to budge. Perhaps not surprisingly, experts are often part of the problem. The Sternins write: “Those eking out existence on the margins of society grasp the simple elegance of the PD approach – in contrast to the sceptical consideration of the more educated and/or privileged. Uptake seems in inverse proportion to prosperity, formal authority, years of schooling and degrees hanging on walls.”
I can vouch from personal experience how hard it is to give up my learned role and become a facilitator. Holding back from providing your own answer when you ask a group a question is, as the Sternins put it, “more difficult than trying to stifle an oncoming sneeze”.
Thinking in systems should change everything
In the first film in the Matrix series (the only one worth watching), the hero, Neo, suddenly starts to see the matrix of ones and zeroes that lies beneath the surface of his world, at which point he becomes invincible. I have the same feeling about systems (aside from the invincibility part). Thinking in systems should change everything, including the way we look at politics, economics, society, and even ourselves, in new and exciting ways.
It also poses a devastating challenge to traditional linear planning approaches and to our ways of working. We activists need to become better “reflectivists”, taking the time to understand the system before (and while) engaging with it. We need to better understand the stop–start rhythm of change exhibited by complex systems and adapt our efforts accordingly. And we need to become less arrogant, more willing to learn from accidents, from failures, and from other people. Finally, we have to make friends with ambiguity and uncertainty, while maintaining the energy and determination so essential to changing the world.
It isn’t easy, but it is entirely possible, as I hope I have shown. Once we learn to “dance with the system”, no other partner will do.