Where systems are concerned, you don’t have to win at all levels


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We live within systems. Nothing is linear, and if there was ever a great conundrum in non-linear thinking, is that one plus one does not always equal two. In fact, it may be indeterminate! Let me give you an example. If 50kg of fertilizer can yield 200 kg of potato from a particular patch of land, how much potato would 100kg of fertilizer yield from this patch? To my rationally learned friends, the answer would be 400kg. But would it surprise you that the answer is ZERO? Well, if you over-fertilise the earth, you cause adverse effects on plant growth, increase the effects of leaching, causing contamination of the environment. All these will cause your potato growth to be overwhelmed, thereby no potato. So, if we cannot predict the effects of change, what can we do when we need to improve the performance of a system?

The good news is that you don’t have to win at all levels to get the system to improve, the bad news is that, you’d have to work at it. There are the five steps:

1. Determine the system

In all systemic situations, there are more than one system at play. For example, if you are thinking of going on a diet, it could be a weight management system, a health system, or a food system. Each system would have its own drivers, and these will impact on your overall strategy. You therefore need to identify the correct system, and then articulate your intent by using “increase” or “decrease”. For example, if you identified your dieting issue as a weight management system, you could either identify your system as “decreasing your body mass index” or “increasing frequency of exercise.” (Note: You will find out that using the “decrease” focus will put you right smack into the double-negative considerations. That is why I prefer to use the “increase” system, although that does not apply all the time!)

2. Identify your system drivers

Some call these factors, others call them determinants; I call them drivers because these elements drive the system to move in one direction or another. If we were trying to decrease body mass index, then some of the drivers would include exercise, lifestyle, free time, work schedule, diet, etc. In this step, you are not required to assess the impact of the driver on the system (either negative or positive), you just identify them. Be as exhaustive as possible in this step.

3. Classify drivers as “reinforcing” or “hindering”

Here is where you start assessing impact. This must be done once you have identified all drivers (as far as you possibly can). You then take a large sheet of paper and draw a line through the middle, putting the reinforcing drivers at the top, and the hindering ones at the bottom. You need to do this per your current situation. For example, we all know that exercise will help decrease body mass index, thereby reinforcing your system; but let’s say currently, you are not exercising. Hence, you should place this driver in the “hindering” section, because your lack of exercise is hindering your decrease in body mass index. Do this for all the drivers.

4. Connect between drivers

Next draw interconnecting arrows between drivers, starting from the cause to the effect. For example, diet (or, more precisely, the lack thereof) leads to increased weight, then I would draw an arrow leading from “diet” to “weight”. Sometimes there may be a two-way connection – one leading to the other. In this case, draw two arrows instead of a two-headed one. Later we will count the number of arrows coming in or out of each driver. Do this until it is totally exhaustive.

5. Identify the centre of gravity

Once you have completed inter-connecting drivers, look for the driver that has the largest number of lines leading into, and out of, it. There usually are about two to three drivers. These are the centres of gravity of your systemic issue.

The simple solution

Ultimately, you will find that the solution is simpler than you had expected. Using the centres of gravity of your situation, your solution lies in moving your hindering drivers into reinforcing ones, using those that are already reinforcing to assist in the transformation. As the title of this post says, you therefore don’t have to change every aspect of the system, moving all hindering drivers into reinforcing, just your centres of gravity.

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