Resources for Cultivating Systems Thinking

I want to share this post from the Leadership Learning Community blog. If you haven’t heard of it and are interested in leadership resources and learning, you must check it out.

Original post can be found here.

Submitted by Deborah Meehanon Wed, 05/18/2011 – 17:19


Listening to Professor john powell’s webinar yesterday on Systems Thinking and Racial Justice completely reinforced everything we at LLC have come to believe about systems thinking as an essential 21st leadership competency. (BTW, it’s not too late to check out this amazing webinar that has already generated appreciative comments, “thanks for a GREAT GREAT call” and “I find most webinars boring, but I’ve already been able to apply part of what Professor Powell said to my own work last night. More, please”). Someone on the webinar asked, how can systems thinking be developed? This will be a longer blog than usual because it’s such an important question and because there are lots of great resources I want to share with you. My first introduction to systems thinking was a somewhat academic lecture with negative and positive feedback loops that left me bleary, if not loopy. Luckily, I had the opportunity to attend a Peter Senge seminar. It was a mostly corporate crowd. I was quite surprised (okay, maybe smug) about how profound the idea of aligning personal vision and values was to other participants, and then we played the Beer Game. Suddenly, I was the fish out of water, wishing I had paid more attention to that earlier lecture.
The Beer Game developed at MIT is a production/distribution simulation that compresses time and space so that players can experience the longer term consequence of their actions over a half a day. In the Beer Game each player has information about their part of the job, like retailer demand or wholesaler inventory, but none of them have the entire picture or access to information in other parts of the beer production and distribution system. This makes it difficult to understand fluctuations in the system (and what is causing them) in order to avoid costly backlogs and win the game. Universally, teams perform poorly because they do not understand the impact of their own decisions on others in the system, e.g. a retailer who does not understand they do not have stock because of a shipping delay, places another order depleting the wholesalers stock who then produces more beer because they think demand is up. Players think that they are responding to wild fluctuations in consumer demand without seeing that their reactions actually are contributing to and perpetuating the fluctuations within the system as a whole. You can download a free online Beer Game simulation from MIT. I confess to loving games but sadly this simulation gets played out regularly for many of us in the non profit sector who find that our solution has created a problem in some other part of the system.
Donella Meadows, a renowned environmentalist and brilliant systems thinker, understood this well and offers many examples including the world food system when she describes the problems of hunger and glut that are caused by efforts to solve these problems separately instead of together. As she explains, “The United States, Japan, and Europe spent $100 billion to protect their farmers against low prices caused by agricultural over-production. Half that amount went to farmers; the rest went to bureaucracy and storage of unsold grain, butter and milk. The surplus grain stock of the European Community in 1984 was enough to feed fifty times the combined populations of Ethiopia and the Sudan last year. The world distributes food through markets. People who have no money are simply bypassed by markets.” She goes on to describe negative outcomes of a number of interventions that seem to make sense before she offers a more comprehensive strategy, much of which focuses on generating income in the countries where hunger is greatest. Unfortunately most of us focus on problems in isolation, organizations are more likely to focus on trade or hunger with little communication between them (yes, like the beer game). A distillation of Donnella Meadow’s work has been compiled in a great book, Thinking in Systems.
Domestically we also focus too narrowly on problems, it might be an organization focused on low performing schools not understanding the multiple factors and long-term patterns that are having an impact on the performance of a neighborhood school. Professor powell explained the failure of school integration in his webinar as the system adjusted to maintain segregation and the loop that perpetuates it. For example, there may have been low outcomes in this same neighborhood school that precipitated white flight and resulted in a lower tax base for the school that increased segregation and the concentration of poverty in the school’s neighborhood further depleting resources for this school and contributing to poor outcomes…and on and on it goes. The student who attends this school is less likely to get a good education, advance to college and secure a well paid job that would enable him/her to move his family to a neighborhood with better schools, health services, transportation, recreation and safety. The solution can’t come from focusing on one school or one part of the problem, e.g. teacher training, student retention.
In the case of education, Professor Powell offered an example of a solution in NC that dramatically increased the performance of African American and Latino students while maintaining the performance levels of white students…and 95% of the parents in the city were happy with their schools! They redistributed students among the schools so that no school had more than 40% of its students eligible for free or subsidized lunches, or 25% who were failing grade level equivalency. The Kirwan Institute founded by Professor Powell has produced a very helpful primer that is a fabulous resource for helping to develop our understanding of structural racism with a systems perspective.
So what does this have to do with leadership, and leadership development? Most leadership efforts are tackling problems embedded within complex systems…and without a systems perspective. I first encountered systems thinking as core leadership competency while participating in an Environmental Leadership Collaborative where a number of programs including the Sustainability Leadership Institute and LEAD international shared experiential exercises for cultivating systems thinking among their program participants. It’s doable, fun, illuminating and most important of all, essential if we are to effectively address the root causes of problems with interventions that can transform systems. Of course it’s not surprising that environmentalist would have the jump on this with a focus on studying the environment as a highly interdependent system where a change in what part of the ecosystem has an enormous impact throughout the system. The Sustainability Institute shares lessons from their experience cultivating systems thinking in their leadership program and have posted many short systems stories that can be used to help understand and cultivate systems thinking.
Those who are engaged in leadership dealing with intractable social problems can bring a systems perspective to understanding how the problem they are concerned with is affected by multiple factors over time, and to understand where to intervene in ways that disrupt this system. System thinkers refer to these as the “leverage points.” As Professor powell explained in are earlier webinar, “It’s not all bad news; when we understand the system a seemingly small change can have a big impact.” This goes to the heart of leadership as what could be more important? Donella Meadows produced a great resource on understanding leverage points, a core leadership competency for success in our complex environment.
Those who have devoted their leadership efforts to improving the health status of everyone are adopting a systems analysis. They understand that a number of social determinants and the built environment in which people live have a significant impact on one’s health outcomes. A number of racial equity tools have been developed and are in use in cities like Seattle and Santa Cruz to help those in leadership understand and address a comprehensive set of factors that determine health outcomes. To support a systems analysis of potential interventions in the global health system the CDC has developed its version of the Beer Game that can be downloaded for free.
So, if I had been trained in systems thinking would my performance in the Beer Game have improved the lot of my team? Probably not. I would still have been one individual without good information about what was happening in other parts of the system, whether it’s shipping beer; or supporting a parcel tax to improve schools that is a regressive tax likely to hurt some neighborhood schools. What we need is to bring a systems perspective while we connect multiple people throughout the system together to observe the system, try interventions, learn together and keep trying until we collectively discover the effective intervention points. It would have taken all of the parts of the beer shipping and distribution system connected and working together with a systems perspective to solve the problem.
As Otto Scharmer in an address to the World Economic Forum explains in his paper, “Moving from Egosystem to Ecosytem,” “For the past 15 years I have worked on numerous initiatives seeking profound innovation and change in business, health, and education, and on sustainability issues. In all of these large systems, I have found that the biggest roadblock to moving from institutional paralysis to profound systemic renewal is the same: it’s the missing collective leadership capacity to draw together all key stakeholders and involve them in a process that begins with uncovering common intention and ends with collectively creating profound innovation on the scale of the whole system.” Our leadership programs can provide the container that connects people throughout a system to deepen their analysis of the system from multiple perspectives and to collectively learn from multiple interventions to produce innovations that change systems. There are lots of tools available for leadership programs interested in cultivating systems thinking competency, and you may have some to share. Send them along and we will create a systems thinking resource directory at We have an opportunity and responsibility to cultivate leadership competencies that will support transformational change. At Donella Meadows points out we need people with these skills and the heart to do the right thing with these skills, “Systems thinking can lead us to the edge of what analysis can do and then point beyond – to what can and must be done by the human spirit.” -Donella (Dana) Meadows


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