The 11 Laws of Systems Thinking and Stakeholder Engagement

Jamie Billingham Engagement 2 Comments

Systems thinking as a way of looking at the world. It’s the only way to look at and navigate a complex adaptive system like the the education system. Peter Senge identified 11 Laws, or truths, that leaders can use to guide the way through the rough waters that so often plague education. This post describes how community engagement can be used reduce the unintended consequences of decisions and ensure clear sailing.

1. Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions.

We love to solve problems. There is feeling of satisfaction that occurs when we lay that last puzzle piece, reach a decision or solve a difficult problem. The problem is that every “problem” we face today, in education, in the environment, even in our personal lives owes it very existence to a well meaning step we individually or collectively, took yesterday. Decisions we make today often become tomorrow’s problems. The solution – engage your community to help identify, frame and solve the problem.  A large, diverse group will see the problem from all angles is more likely to anticipate unintended consequences.

2. The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back.

This is, in systems thinking parlance, “compensating feedback”. This happens in conversation, government programs, business and personal wellness efforts. In conversations we often try to argue our point by disagreeing with the other person. Our “push” helps them strengthen their position. We make them think and fight harder. Social programs are rampant with examples of community improvement initiatives that resulted in worse conditions. Government aims to improve the living conditions for a group in one part of town result is more people moving into the area, placing an unsupportable burden on the systems in place.  Beware of the word “intervention”. If you see it or hear it know that what it really means is “we will push hard” and be ready to experience the consequence. To avoid this, let the system find its own solutions. Heed Margaret Wheatley counsel:

… a living system forms from shared interests, all change results from a change in meaning, every living system is free to choose whether it changes and, systems contain their own solutions.

 The role of leadership is to invite people in, engage the community and create a safe environment where ideas can grow.

3. Behavior grows better before it grows worse.

The best depiction of this concept is from the Arnie Levin’s cartoon of the man about to knock over a circle of dominos. As the dominoes begin to fall there is a release as immediate pressure is relieved but after a delay the problem returns. Sometime this is seen when organizations are more concerned with impression control than dealing with the actual problem. Engaging stakeholders in problem solving and solution finding can virtually eliminate this, provided the arena for engagement reduces bias and allows ideas and potential solutions to rise above personalities and politics.

4. The easy way out usually leads back in.

Kaplan called this the law of the instrument saying ”Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding”. Maslow reframed this saying “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”.  This is a comfort zone challenge. When something works we like to reuse it. This happens when we try to apply “best practices” to complex problems. Engaging your community members provides much needed insight and a diverse set of tools to apply to the problem.

5. The cure can be worse than the disease.

This is also called “shifting the burden” and is easy to confuse with the push/push back law. It’s slightly different though and can occur at the same time. The “cure” in this case is an intervention that is enabling and becomes addictive. As dependence on the intervention increases the system’s ability to cure itself lessens. This is about the difference between giving a man a fish and teaching him how to fish. If an intervention is needed then we have to make sure the intervention doesn’t weaken the entire system causing more and more dependence. In some ways public education shifted the burden of teaching children from parents to teachers. Engaging stakeholders in defining problems and finding solutions keeps the burden where it belongs, shared across the entire system and not just on one part of it.

6. Faster is slower.

The story of the tortoise and the hare suggests that when we try to move too fast we can get left behind. Every system has it own unique and optimal speed. This kind of thinking is often articulated as “fixing” things. When you hear something like  “We’re bringing in a consultant (or hiring a new manager) to fix things around here”, be very wary. A fast fix often leads to a slow cure.  Finding sustainable solutions can take time. Community members may need time and space to absorb and adjust to new ideas or changes. The pay value of slowing the pace is a more involved and supportive community.

7. Cause and effect are not closely related in time and space.

How many times do you push an elevator button? How often have you over compensated for the amount of cold water in the shower? We tend to believe that when we do something there should be an effect that we can see within a set amount of time. All of our testing, funding and business practices reflect this belief. The challenge is that sometimes there is a clear and present relationship between cause and effect. Just not all the time. When you actively inform, engage and include your community you provide them with an opportunity to see the real space between cause and effect.

8. Small changes can produce big results – but the areas of highest leverage are often the least obvious.

Butterfly wings and hurricanes. This is the law of leverage. Small, focused actions at the right place in the system can produce the biggest and best changes. The challenge is that the “right place” is not obvious and can seem counterintuitive. Donella Meadows describes 12 places of leverage in a system and close to the top of the list is the goals of the system. Some say that the education system isn’t working. I think it works quite well given the original goal of producing factory workers. Right now the goal is changing, in part because of changes in technology that allow education system stakeholders to collaborate and cooperate and influence the goals of the system. See #6 and 7 above.  A great example of small, counterintuitive actions are the use of insects to control insects. Wasps are introduced in many a greenhouse as a way to control other insects that feed on the greenhouse crop. Brilliant, effective and not the most intuitive solution. The key to being able to use leverage in a system is knowing the structure of the system. In education the structure is massive and very few people know it well enough to intuit where the leverage points are. Here again including a large, diverse group of stakeholders and using their collective intelligence can help find those points.

9. You can have your cake and eat it too – but not at once.

Black and white, either/or thinking courtesy of  Mr. Newton. In so many instances we think something is an either/or problem when in fact its a dilemma that can become both/and if we change how we think of the problem and allow time for solutions to work. Invite stakeholders into the process of imagining possible solutions and potential long term outcomes.

10. Dividing an elephant in half does not produce two small elephants.

Inability to see the system as a whole can create world of problems. In the education system…well that’s one BIG elephant and it’s almost impossible for one person to see the entire thing. The best approach is to have more eyes looking at the elephant from different angles and vantage points. Chunking up the system and trying to analyze the parts independently is possibly the worst solution. What works for the trunk will probably be the worst possible solution for the tail. This doesn’t mean you can work within boundaries it just means that staying aware of the whole, using multiple, diverse perspectives and attending to how the parts interact will be more helpful and less messy.

11. There is no blame.

In a complex adaptive system there is no separate “other”. Everything and everyone is connected and together we co-create the whole system. Sometimes we have difficulty with this. We reflex to blame, we deflect, and deny. Its hard to take full responsibility for something that seems to be outside of our control without trying to control everything. It can feel like two competing ideas and for many that feeling is uncomfortable. Senge suggests:

The cure lies with the relationships with the very people we typically blame for the problems we are trying to solve.

The challenge, in this century, is being brave and making the choice to invite those we see as adversaries, into the process. Inviting community into problem solving and decision making won’t rock the boat as many fear. Rather they will provide the ballast to keep an even keel in any storm.

About the Author'

Jamie Billingham

Share this Post

Comments 2


    Thanks Jamie for this excellent resource, your article is very inspirational and I’ll use it to create my own message too for developing in our case a stronger generosity movement in our network of organizations.

  2. Pingback: The 11 Laws of Systems Thinking – Heart of the Art

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *