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[Review] 'Systems Thinking for Social Change: A Practical Guide to Solving Complex Problems, Avoiding Unintended Consequences, and Achieving Lasting Results'

October 19, 2015

What makes a good old-fashioned mystery so much fun? In part, the enjoyment lies in the opportunity to gather clues along the way and figure out who committed the crime and why. In his book Systems Thinking for Social Change: A Practical Guide to Solving Complex Problems, Avoiding Unintended Consequences, and Achieving Lasting Results, systems thinking pioneer David Peter Stroh, a founding partner of Bridgeway Partners and director of www.appliedsystemsthinking.com, draws a parallel between efforts to solve seemingly intractable social problems and the mystery stories many of us love. Instead of asking "Who done it?" however, Stroh suggests that those working to bring about social change should ask, "Why have we not been able to solve the complex social problems that plague us in spite of our best intentions and efforts?"

Cover_systems_thinking_for_social_changeQuestioning the unhelpful modes of thinking that perpetuate chronic social problems is at the heart of Stroh's book — none more so than "linear" thinking, which involves breaking problems into their individual components "under the assumption that we can best address the whole by focusing on and optimizing the parts." For Stroh, this is the opposite of systems thinking. Not only is it myopic, but its failure to recognize and account for the many forces that feed into a problem often leads to unintended consequences. This kind of "conventional" thinking also fails to account for "time delay" — the time required for a series of actions to work themselves out, or, alternatively, for unintended consequences to unfold. As Stroh says, "today's problems were most likely yesterday's solutions."

A prime example of linear thinking is the idea that providing temporary shelter for the chronically homeless will end homelessness. But while shelters would seem to be the most humane and timely response to homelessness, writes Stroh, they're actually an ineffectual "quick fix" that divert time, effort, and resources away from a more lasting, systemic solution such as providing permanent housing. A more systemic solution to homelessness also would improve relationships among all stakeholders, including the people who provide support services to the homeless as well as homeless people themselves. As Stroh notes, the people who are supposed to benefit from social change are "too often excluded" from the actual planning process intended to drive that change. Thinking systemically, he adds, forces changemakers to focus on the people who have the most at stake.

Another example of conventional linear thinking cited by Stroh is America's reliance on mandatory "get-tough" prison sentences. As a growing number of studies have shown, the policy often backfires, in that it distracts the justice system, policy makers, and other stakeholders from addressing the root causes of many crimes while doing nothing to prevent a large percentage of ex-offenders from ending up back in prison. As Stroh writes, "[P]olicy makers who want to protect society from addicts (homeless people suffering from substance abuse or drug addicts who commit crimes) can ironically become addicted to solutions that exacerbate these social problems in the long run."

So how do we break our addiction to short-sighted and ineffective quick fixes? To start, Stroh suggests, tell a story. Although social problems tend to be multi-causal, they often conform to a pattern. Stroh believes that by recognizing the "plot lines" in those patterns, we can begin to understand why our efforts to reduce crime actually result in high rates of recidivism, why state and local agencies often find it difficult to work together, and how drug busts can increase drug-related crime.

From such patterns emerge what Stroh calls "systems archetypes," which in turn go a long way toward explaining the root causes of many stubbornly intractable problems. These archetypes include "Fixes That Backfire" (e.g., the above-mentioned "solutions" for homelessness and crime), "Shifting the Burden" (when we know we need to address the root causes of a problem instead of its symptoms but don't invest the resources needed to create long-term change), "Accidental Adversaries" (where groups that should be collaborating unintentionally undermine one another's efforts), and "Success to the Successful" (where the rich get richer and the poor grow poorer). But there's hope. While we too often find ourselves caught in a web comprised of these archetypes, Stroh writes, "the better people understand them, the less likely they are to become victimized by them."

And this is where Stroh's main practical contribution, the systems map, comes into play. Systems maps, he writes, are a form of "visual storytelling" that helps stakeholders recognize problematic plot lines and patterns and identify key leverage points for change. For example, a map might diagram negative feedback loops that need to be interrupted, reveal early opportunities for intervention, or highlight mutually beneficial partnerships. What's more, a good systems map is simple enough to be readily understandable but complex enough to account for the diverse factors that drive a destructive dynamic. Indeed, those who witness the creation of a good systems map often experience a "eureka" moment.

Stroh also does a good job orienting readers who are altogether unfamiliar with the holistic systems thinking approach. "Organizations and social systems do in fact have a life of their own," he writes, and we need to better understand the various forces at play in order to "consciously work with them instead of unconsciously working against them." Systems thinking involves fine-tuning the relationships between the various parts of a system so that everyone involved can see how his or her work contributes to the whole.

Whether you are a "visual thinker" or more logical in your approach to problem solving, Systems Thinking for Social Change presents the challenge of learning to think more systemically as both a valuable tool and an end in itself. And if the book inspires "catalytic conversations" among a wide spectrum of stakeholders, as Stroh clearly hopes, well, that's an added bonus, as those conversations are likely to help us solve more than a few real-world mysteries together.

Mirielle Clifford is an editorial assistant at Foundation Center. For more great reviews, visit our Off the Shelf section.

Related Readings:

Nick Cooney, How to Be Great at Doing Good: Why Results Are What Count and How Smart Charity Can Change the World, John Wiley & Sons, 2015.

David Grant, The Social Profit Handbook: The Essential Guide to Setting Goals, Assessing Outcomes, and Achieving Success for Mission-Driven Organizations, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2015.

Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity, Knopf, 2014.

Andy Carroll, Twenty Ways to Make a Difference: Stories From Small Foundations, Association of Small Foundations, 2012.

For more on this topic, see the Catalog of Nonprofit Literature.

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