“The system is broken.”
“The system fails to meet people’s needs.”
“We need to change the system.”
Does this sound familiar? I bet it does. Every self-respecting activist and change maker knows this narrative; partially, because it has a lot of truth in it. Problems appear when the conversation on systems change stops here: Some will throw their hands in despair because the system’s just too big and too powerful – and others will start fighting the system in opposition, always dreaming of overthrowing it. Unfortunately, both strategies are bound to fail in their ambition to make an impact.
How can we dare to make a difference?
In order to change systems (or ‘the system’), we need to understand how they work. Systems thinking teaches us that we can understand systems on three levels:
- We can observe the whole and its behaviours, and make guesses about its boundaries and purpose. This is what we often talk about when we say that the system is broken.
- We can observe its parts – the people and institutions that participate in it. What drives them? In what way are we part of the system?
- We can observe relationships and flows (of resources, money, information). What dynamics contribute to the stability of the system? What is changing over time?
Drawing the system with a group often helps to create a shared understanding as we learn to build the big picture from individual viewpoints. There’s no right way to do this – any map is by definition incomplete. But it can serve us as a temporary guidepost.
You’ll then be able to have a conversation about the best courses of action. Ideally, you can identify 2-3 acupressure points where a small intervention might result in big systems change (and even kick off a complete transformation to a new equilibrium). For inspiration, check out Dana Meadows’ essay “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System”.
Next time you find yourself in a conversation about broken systems, reclaim your power and agency by asking “who does what that causes these symptoms?”.
Because anything else would just be lazy – and bound to fail.