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Sep 28 / Beth Robinson

Enabling a Better Tomorrow

Gene Bellinger. Volume 1. Issue 3. September 28, 2012.

Abstract: We see that most of the problems we deal with today are the direct result of the solutions we used to solve yesterday’s problems. This article presents a framework of aspects to consider so we can develop strategic approaches that minimize these unintended consequences.

 

As we think about the problems we face today it becomes readily evident that the majority of these problems are the direct result of yesterday’s solutions. If we desire to enable a better tomorrow, the foundation of that tomorrow must be the development of a viable approach for dealing with situations. We need an approach which actually addresses the situation while minimizing the likelihood of making the situation worse or creating new problems that we will have to address in the future. The foundation of this approach, as with all real progress, is learning. This paper presents a model for the requisite learning.

Background

Over the years numerous new approaches to problem solving have been developed and promoted. Some of these were turned into fads and readily adopted by many. The fads were not well founded and in time proved not to deliver the expected results. When the expected results were not delivered the fads were discarded in favor of the next fad. As Michael McGill [1991] points out, the real difficulty lies in a flawed mental model under which both the promoters and the adopters operate. That flawed mental model being their belief that there should exist a quick fix.

In contrast, well grounded and proven approaches to problem solving have not been widely adopted. Those with flawed mental models consider the proven approaches to be too complicated or time consuming. The quest for the ever elusive quick fix condemns us to repeatedly solving the new problems created by the quick fix. This is the type of result expected from operating with flawed mental models [Senge, 1990] We must realize the quick fix is a mirage and invest the time to learn the proven methods and create sound solutions.

Intent

Whether we’re considering a problem, a situation, an objective, or a desire, the underlying essence of the manner in which we proceed to deal with it is the essentially the same.

Given a situation that we consider warrants attention we first need to develop an understanding. An understanding that will enable us to develop a strategy which actually improves the situation while minimizing unintended consequences. Our desire to minimize unintended consequences is based on our experiences. We have learned that unintended consequences typically make the initial situation worse or end up creating new problems that we ourselves or others have to figure out how to deal with. A well crafted strategy well executed can serve to minimize unintended consequences; although whatever unintended consequences still arise are likely to make the situation worse or result in new problems. The total elimination of unintended consequences is generally impossible.

Whether we realize it or not Fig. 1 can be applied to just about everything that happens in our lives. Even when we don’t consciously think about it the interactions depicted in Fig. 1 are operating. The extent to which people consciously think about these relations varies. Some people think about the implication of their actions and stop there. And some people think about the implications of implications of implications. They do this because they understand that things are highly interconnected and the implications are difficult to foresee.

Strategy

Given the realization that there is an underlying set of interactions as depicted in Fig. 1 which is essentially the foundation of all our endeavors, seeking a deeper awareness of how we develop the requisite understanding would seem a sensible undertaking. An introduction to developing this understanding is depicted in Fig. 2.

Fig. 2 represents an iterative unfolding of understanding intended to provide the basis for developing a strategy which, when implemented, is highly likely to address the situation of interest as intended, while minimizing the likelihood of unintended consequences or creating new problems.

  • Situation of interest considered to warrant attention, along with an assessment of the implications of not acting, and a definition of the preferred alternative situation. These form the basis for developing understanding. The situation may be undesirable or simply warrants an undertaking to ensure that it remains desirable. The situation as it is actually represents the current state of a developing pattern of behavior.

  • Behavior represents an unfolding pattern of some aspects of a number of relationships that finally developed to a point where it captured attention. As such, one works backward from the described situation to understand the developing patterns of behavior. The patterns of behavior are the result of a set of interactions which we also must understand.

  • Model represents the relations unfolding over time that are responsible for the patterns of behavior experienced. These interactions are the result of some set of actions by one or more stakeholders. As such we endeavor to understand the mental models and motivations of the stakeholders responsible for the situation.

  • Stakeholders’ motivations and mental models must be understood as they are responsible for the structure of interactions producing the current situation.

  • Boundaries are established to keep track of which stakeholders are responsible for which aspects of the interactions, which set of relations are considered addressable, and which relations are part of the environment we’re not in a position to address.

  • Assumptions which have been made while developing an understanding to this point must be validated. It is essential that we challenge those assumptions because decisions made on invalid assumptions are unlikely to support the intended results.

  • Leverage is an effort to identify places where small changes in the relationships will have a large impact and are likely to transform the current situation into the desired alternative situation.

  • Strategy is developed as a set of actions to be undertaken by the stakeholders which will alter the relationships in a way which will migrate the situation of interest in the direction of the desired alternative situation while attempting to ensure the minimization of unintended consequences.

  • Strategy Adoption requires the actual transformation of the current structure to the new structure identified in the strategy so it produces the new desired pattern of behavior.

  • Unintended Consequences are typically the result of actions taken without appropriate due consideration of the implications of those actions. And unintended consequences are seldom beneficial. As such, the intent of the strategy is to minimize them. Note that the unintended consequences may make the current situation worse or be responsible for triggering a whole new set of problems.

  • New problems are one of the expected results from unintended consequences that don’t actually make the original situation worse. These new problems will then also have to be dealt with in a similar manner.

Conclusion

If we are to evolve beyond the Pogo predicament, “We have met the enemy and he is us” [Kelly, 1970] it is essential we embrace learning and become far more adept at developing truly viable approaches for dealing with situations. And attempting to deal with situations without the requisite level of understanding has repeatedly proven to be little more than meddling which makes the situation worse or creates new problems that have to be dealt with. There are well defined proven approaches for developing each aspect of the model presented in Fig. 2. [Bellinger, 2012] These can be explored in more detail in the videos at the Systemic Perspective/Foundations page on the Systems Thinking World Wiki.

Gene Bellinger has been a passionate Systems Thinker since reading Stafford Beer’s “Platform for Change” over three decades ago. Having worked in numerous industries Systems Thinking has continued to be the consistent thread running though all the various engagements. Gene is the creator of SystemsWiki.org and host of the Systems Thinking World discussion group on LinkedIn and continues to promote the broader adoption of Systems Thinking as a meaningful worldview.

Staff helping with this article. Editor: Beth Robinson. Reviewers: Barry Clemson, Nicolas Stampf, Ivan Taylor, Richard Wright.

References

Bellinger, Gene R., 2012, Systemic Perspective/Foundations, Internet Access

Kelly, Walt, 1970, Earth Day, Wikipedia

McGill, Michael E., 1991, American Business and the Quick Fix, Henry Hold & Co

Senge, Peter M., 2010, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization, Crown Business

Bellinger, Gene. R., 2012, Systems Thinking World Webinars, Internet Access

Reference details for this article

Bellinger, Gene. (2012). Enabling a Better Tomorrow. Systems Thinking World Journal: Reflection in Action. [Online Journal]. 1(3). [Referred 2012-09-28]. Available:http://stwj.systemswiki.org . ISSN-L 2242-8577  ISSN 2242-8577

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  1. Nicolas Stampf / Oct 2 2012

    Very nice article, Gene!

    Now, I know the videos are available, but I would think some specific article on each of your bullet points would make some nice addition, with, in the end, a possible whole learning package that would discuss how to approach Situation, Behavior, Model, Boundary, etc.

    I think it’s important to convey the idea that ST is not about applying a step by step, linear method where one would move from bullet #1 onto the last one, but that each step leads to investigations that might (will?) have consequences onto other steps already tackled (or yet to work out).

    Moreover, if ST is used in the intent to make change, there’s a great learning here (well, that was one for me) that the one doing the study is the one learning the most and that any insight gained cannot be transmitted (pushed) onto those that we see ought to change, for they haven’t had that same insight and they will most likely will resist. As such, practising ST is also about involving others, at least so that we all get onto the same page with respect to knowledge, but also (warning, humility entering the scene here), because others might have information that we don’t that may very well influence our ST in one direction or the other.

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