Advocate’s Guide to System Thinking, P. 1

Circular diagram of system modeling techniques

Systems Thinking Diagram

In the ordinary run of advocacy, an Event happens which is a violation of the rights of a person to freedom, choice, or the denial of some possibility in their life. We notice the Event and respond to it with an advocacy strategy designed to counter or reverse it.

But, as Gene Bellinger points out, events don’t just appear out of nowhere. They are the result of complex processes, and if we don’t respect the complexity that produced the event, we will trigger unintended results through our apparently obvious advocacy strategy.

This is the core of the difference between systems thinking and standard approaches to identifying and reacting to problems. But systems thinking is abstract and it isn’t taught to us when we are young enough to easily absorb it.  Instead, we are taught to view processes as objects. So the Event is divorced from the flow that produced it. And so is our response to the Event.

Imagine that you own an old house in the country. You have a “Michigan basement”. Rain tends to flood the basement. Because flooding doesn’t happen all the time, you don’t necessarily feel driven to do something permanent about it, but it is annoying. You have to do something about it.

Some options:

  • You can just wait for the basement to drain on its own
  • You can bail it out with a bucket whenever it occurs
  • You can put in a sump pump
  • You can dig a deep hole in the basement so that the flooding has less impact on most of the basement
  • You can remodel the basement so that it is sealed and no longer floods
  • You can support drought in your community so that flooding happens less often
  • You can put a huge dome over your property so less rain ends up in your yard and your basement
  • You can hire someone to do any or several of these things for you

See how advocacy is like solving any problem? The majority of options in any problem-solving effort are similar regardless of the problem:

  • You can ignore the problem
  • You can try a minimalist solution
  • You can try to prevent repetition
  • You can try to interfere with the process that leads up to the problem so it doesn’t happen to you
  • You can try to alter the entire system that makes this problem possible in the first place

Your choice has consequences aside from the effect of the solution on the problem. It has costs in your time and money, maintenance of the solution, solution failure, unintended consequences, and so on.

A solution is a choice, not just a choice from a menu but a choice embracing all the consequences of that choice whether you know them or not. Like most any problem-solving effort, advocacy is a commitment to a future that is uncertain. It is, in other words, a strategic choice, whether we treat it that way or not.

Let’s remember the definition of a strategy:

A Strategy is a framework for dealing with future uncertainty and scarce resources.

There is no privileged choice in the menu above. There is only the choice that fits your circumstances.  Systems thinking is a way of managing how you assess any advocacy choice and how well it might fit your circumstances.

Next Post: Advocate’s Guide to System Thinking, P. 2



Author: disabilitynorm

hubby2jill, advocate50+yrs, change strategist, trainer, geezer, Tom and Pepper the wundermutts