The following is a conversation between David Peter Stroh, Author of Systems Thinking for Social Change and Founder of Bridgeway Partners, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: One of the great frustrations that we all share is that many of our social problems, despite well-intentioned people providing additional resources, just don’t seem to be getting much better. In fact, sometimes they’re actually getting worse. My next guest maintains we just may be thinking about these problems in the wrong way and that a different approach will yield different results that will be better. He is David Peter Stroh, the Founder of Bridgeway Partners and the Author of Systems Thinking for Social Change: A Practical Guide for Solving Complex Problems, Avoiding Unintended Consequences, and Achieving Lasting Results. Good evening, David, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
David: Hi, Denver. Thank you very much for having me!
Systems thinking…is the ability to understand the connections among those elements in such a way as to achieve a desired purpose, not the purpose that the system is currently necessarily achieving.
Denver: So, David, what is systems thinking?
David: So, systems thinking…I’ll start off with a definition of a system because even there, people get a little confused. A system is a set of elements that’s connected and organized to accomplish… something. Now, that’s a really strange definition, but one of the pioneers in systems thinking– a woman named Donella Meadows who’s sadly no longer with us– coined that definition. So, an interconnected set of elements, coherently organized to achieve something. And that last word you think of– from an expert– the best they can do is “something”?
And the reason that that is there, is there is a principle that systems are perfectly designed to achieve what they’re achieving right now. And you kind of go, “Wait a second. This system is so dysfunctional. How on earth can you say it’s accomplishing anything?” But in fact, it is. For example, our homelessness system based on shelters is perfectly designed to help people cope with homelessness, but that doesn’t mean it’s designed to help people end homelessness. And that’s a very important distinction.
So systems thinking, I define, is the ability to understand the connections among those elements in such a way as to achieve a desired purpose, not the purpose that the system is currently necessarily achieving.
Denver: We’re going to get back to homelessness a little bit later because I think that is the perfect example, but I know exactly what you’re saying. People in that community say the word “solution” to homelessness never comes up. It absolutely never comes up.
What are the core principles of how systems function?
David: Great question. First of all, I want it to be clear that we are all natural systems thinkers. It sounds like very esoteric stuff, but imagine when you were young: Did you find yourself picking up after your kids, often year after year?
And what happens is—it happens in my house—I have my son, and I say, “Hey, Jonathan. Pick up your clothes.” Now, you’ve got to see the hamper in his bathroom is 5 feet away from the pile of clothes in his room. I said, “Jonathan, pick up your clothes.” He doesn’t show up. “Jonathan…” I can’t stand it anymore. I finally take the laundry, pick it up, put it in the hamper, Jonathan comes wandering back in, looks at the spot where the clothes used to be and says, “Oh, that worked.”
David: It works because he thinks in nonlinear ways. He’s accustomed to the idea of time delay shifting the burden of responsibility to me…that’s all systems thinking.
Denver: And you give him great feedback and pick up his clothes!
David: Yes, right. I fall right into the trap, which is another way of saying that as good as we get at systems thinking, we still have these traps that we have to learn to not fall into.
Coming back to your question, though…So, we are natural systems thinkers, but we tend to get it educated out of us through the normal educational process we go through. Some of the important distinctions here: First of all, in a simple system: If I cut my hand, I put a Band-Aid on it, I’m done; simple problem, obvious problem, simple solution. But in complex systems… the kinds that we are trying to improve, there is actually a non-obvious connection, both in time and space, between the symptoms as they appear and the underlying problems. So that’s one very important distinction.
I talk about food aid as a dramatic example of that. It looks like the problem symptom is starvation, and so the obvious thing to do, the linear thing to do, is to provide food aid.
Denver: Well, that’s what we do. And it’s also, I think in many people’s mind, the main thing to do. You see people; they don’t have food; there’s been a disaster, so let’s pack up the cans; let’s send money, and let’s help these people out. Now what is wrong with that approach?
David: One of the things that’s tricky about systems and the solutions we implement is that often, they are obvious like food aid and, moreover, they work in the short term. What we are not aware of is that there are longer term, unintended consequences to those well-intentioned solutions that actually neutralize the benefits of what we would call those quick fixes or actually make matters worse over time.
So, in the case of food aid, there are two longer term consequences to food aid as an answer to starvation. One of them, and there’s often a 15-year time delay here, is that the population that most benefits from the food aid are the young kids. Ten to fifteen years later, they become of child-bearing age, and you get another spike in population in the country. So, now you have another potential round of starvation with the population spike. In addition, by providing food aid, we actually unwittingly undermine that country’s ability to grow its own food because the farmers in the country now have to compete with free food that’s being received. So there are no incentives or undermined incentives within the country for people to grow their own food.
Denver: You can’t build the economy and you can’t hire people to work on the farm because food is coming in on boats.
David: Right! It ain’t worth it to try to grow your own. That unwitting dependence that the country comes to have is an example of a “quick fix” and also why these sort of obvious solutions that work in the short term don’t actually play out in the same way in the long term. So, that’s one important distinction.
Small successes are always identified and implemented within the context of a long-term strategy…
Systems thinking is both: It’s thinking about the short term but within a long-term context… the short term is building toward the long term instead of undermining the long term.
Denver: That’s a very interesting one. You do make a distinction as well though that quick fixes– although they may be counterproductive– shouldn’t be confused with small successes which are quite important in systems thinking. Give us that distinction, if you would.
David: That’s a great point, Denver. One of the things we noticed is that you’ve got to do things that give people hope and a sense that they are moving in the right direction. So we talk about small wins, small successes, and we need those. But then you ask the question “Well, what on earth is the difference between that and a quick fix?” Because I’m saying on the one hand, we need small successes. On the other hand, beware of the quick fixes. Okay. What on earth am I talking about?
Denver: Straighten us out here, David.
David: So small successes are always identified and implemented within the context of a long-term strategy… with an appreciation that often in systems, one of their characteristics is that there tends to be a difference–unless we’re careful– between the short-term impact to the solution and the longer term impact to the solution… as I described with the food aid issue. Now, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t find things to do in the short term that will mobilize us to have a sustainable long-term impact.
So one of the confusions that people have about systems thinking is “Oh, you’re talking about the long term, but we just have to think about the short term.” What I’m saying is “No, systems thinking is both: It’s thinking about the short term but within a long-term context.” So the short term is building toward the long term instead of undermining the long term.
Denver: You know, another way of looking at this.. and what you laid it out in your book, which I thought was so wonderful… was looking at these problems as attacking the tip of the iceberg. Explain to us what that iceberg model is about.
David: So if you imagine an iceberg, the tip is what we see, but it’s what we don’t see that’s going to get us. What we tend to see in our lives is what happens at a particular point in time. We get drawn to the individual crisis, the fire that we have to put out today. Ninety-five percent of what you read in the newspaper is events – what happened yesterday. So, we get drawn to that, but the best you can do in the face of an event is try to react – put out the fire, manage the crisis. That’s all you can do.
So, if you step back a little bit and you kind of look at the surface of the water there, you may notice some wave patterns. And if we step back from individual events, we might notice “Hmm. Those events are not isolated. They’re actually part of some longer term trend or pattern– what’s been changing over a period of time, of which any particular event is simply an example.” If we can see things in trends and patterns, we can try to forecast “Okay. Well, this is what happened so far. Now, we think we know what’s going to happen in the future, and we can position ourselves accordingly.”
But that’s got some problems, too. One, the SEC will always tell you past performance is no indication of future returns, right?
Denver: We’re down on Wall Street. Very appropriate metaphor.
David: You don’t want to base your future on what’s happened so far, and particularly if things are just getting worse and worse, it’s not reassuring to predict: “Oh, yeah. I can see things are even going to get worse. I know exactly what’s going to happen.”
We want to actually be able to shape and influence and shift the trends and patterns in order to shift the events. In order to do that, we need to go deeper under the water to see what the bottom, that 90% of the iceberg, really is all about.
Denver: These are the good old days.
David: Exactly, or bad old days to come. We want to actually be able to shape and influence and shift the trends and patterns in order to shift the events. In order to do that, we need to go deeper under the water to see what the bottom, that 90% of the iceberg, really is all about.
In system’s terms, that’s called system structure, and it includes things like underlying policies, processes, power dynamics. But also, even more subtle than that, perceptions. What do people assume to be true? Their beliefs and assumptions about the way the world works shapes the way the world works. It’s a critical part of structure.
If you go even deeper, we come to this question of purpose: Is our intention to help people cope with homelessness? Or is it to end homelessness? Because you’re going to have to design a very different system if you’re committed to ending homelessness than if you simply want to help people cope with it.
We identified another core factor, and it was fear. The fear we have of the other. And if you compound that with the structural racism in our country, the fear plays into the racism; the racism plays into the fear, and we believe that that is, in fact, what has been perpetuating mass incarceration. The underlying assumption also is if you remove these people from society, then we will be safer.
Denver: How do our perceptions of crime and the criminal justice system impact the situation which we have right now… where we have about 4% or 5% of the world’s population, but we’ve got 25% of the world’s people who are behind bars?
David: Great question. I did a systems analysis about 10 years ago, sponsored by the Open Society Foundations, on criminal justice reform. We had about 100 activists from around the country. They were grantees, they were lawyers, they were academics…all kind of concerned with this problem of mass incarceration. Initially, I put crime as the critical problem symptom. But then we noticed something very interesting, and they challenged that core factor of the problem symptom being crime because, as they pointed out: before 1991, crime was going up; mass incarceration was going up. But since 1991, crime has been going down, but mass incarceration has continued to increase. So if it isn’t crime that’s perpetuating this, what is it?
We identified another core factor, and it was fear. The fear we have of the other. And if you compound that with the structural racism in our country, the fear plays into the racism; the racism plays into the fear, and we believe that that is, in fact, what has been perpetuating mass incarceration. The underlying assumption also is: if you remove these people from society, then we will be safer.
Fact of the matter is, two things: (1) 95% of the people who go to prison are eventually released; and Fact no. (2): To the extent that we approach incarceration as a place for punishment… as opposed to a place for rehabilitation and the development of people’s capacities to actually be productive members of society when they’re released… depending on what we think mass incarceration is for… or prisons are for, we will often have people come out who are even less prepared– not more prepared, but less prepared– to be productive members of society.
We get these scarily high recidivism rates, and they’re based on the assumptions, first of all, and the intentions that we have about what we’re trying to solve here with mass incarceration.
Denver: And to your point, if all those resources that we’re using on mass incarceration were put back to the blocks in the communities where these people came from, we could change the entire dynamic.
David: In fact, Denver, I think there were some studies that I came across at the time that said that at least 80%, 90% of the people who are in prison come from maybe—and this I can’t vouch for exactly—come from maybe 20 neighborhoods around the country. It’s an incredibly concentrated problem. And yet, do we think about this fundamental solution being to develop those communities and to support their health? Because so much of this crime comes about because young people don’t see a future for themselves and don’t have a future for themselves. They need to be able to apply their energy in constructive ways.
If we thought about investing all the money that we do in prisons and parole management and all the rest of it… in community development, in a relatively few neighborhoods around the country, it seems like that would be a much more fundamental and sustainable solution.
David Peter Stroh and Denver Frederick at the AM970 The Answer Studio
Denver: Great point. It sure does. And we’re also ravaging those communities by taking so many of the men and fathers out of them! Which is just, again, going to exacerbate the situation even worse than it is right now.
David: Precisely. We’re actually weakening those communities, not strengthening them.
Denver: Well, we’ve talked about homelessness a couple of times, so I want to dig into it a little bit because this is a problem which is growing in so many parts of the country.
Daniel Lurie, who’s the CEO of the Tipping Point Community, which is sort of the Robin Hood Foundation of the Bay Area in San Francisco, said that in that community with all the income inequality, the way it has manifested itself most dramatically is in the rate of homelessness which has plagued San Francisco for decades, but now is at a completely different level.
So, going into it a little bit deeper than you have, what is our current system to deal with homelessness that has produced these less than stellar results?
David: Thanks for asking. So I first really got an insight into the power of systems thinking for philanthropy. Also, a little over 10 years ago, a colleague of mine and I had done some capacity building and systems thinking for the Kellogg Foundation. And then they had asked us to participate in a community-building process in their home of Battle Creek, Michigan and surrounding county of about 100,000 people …to convene the community leaders to develop a 10-year plan to end homelessness, that if it were approved would be funded by the state for implementation. What we came up with in our—and by the way, bringing different stakeholders together– the private sector, the public sector, the nonprofit sector– in this case, thankfully, also homeless people themselves.
Denver: The beneficiaries, so to speak.
David: The ultimate beneficiaries had a voice at the table, which is very critical. In any case, you pull those people together in a room…but there had been a homeless coalition that had been meeting for 10 years. They had a shared aspiration around ending homelessness, and yet they found themselves disagreeing about what to do, competing for resources. So it actually wasn’t really benefiting them just to get themselves in the room.
Having other stakeholders was important, but there is always this tendency, when you bring together different stakeholders, for them to assume that the system will get better “if only I got more resources to do what I’m currently doing. Because I’m part of the solution. I’m not part of the problem. I’m doing great stuff. Just give me more resources, and things will get better.”
Denver: That’s the mindset all right.
David: What we discerned in our systems analysis, and so I talked about the importance of complementing, gathering people systemically with actually having them think systemically. And when we help them think systemically, what we discovered is that the quick fix is temporary shelters and emergency supports.
Just around that time, there was more information coming in about what a more fundamental solution which is called Housing First – permanent housing with support services, employment for people who are capable of working. And if you do that, you actually have a much better chance of ending homelessness than if you just keep providing shelters. Because in the shelter system, people recycle through being in a shelter, being out on the street, ending up in jail for a few nights, ending up in the ER… if they’re lucky, being able to couchsurf on a friend’s couch, but they keep cycling through this. They don’t get out of it.
What we helped people see is what we call the irony of temporary shelters. That like the food aid, this well-intentioned effort to give people a roof over their heads was actually undermining the community’s ability to 1) generate the money to invest in permanent housing. And to some extent, it was also “out of sight, out of mind.” If you could put people in a shelter, the community is not going to be too concerned about the nature of the problem.
One other thing I will say, and it’s a way in which the donors can often be unwittingly complicit in this, is the basic metric for a shelter tends to be: 100% bed utilization, like it is for the airlines: fill up all the seats. Just think about it: How are you going to end homelessness when the core metric is 100% bed utilization in a shelter? You can’t get from here to there.
Denver: I got to hit my goal!
David: I got to hit my goal. And if I get my goal, I get funded for meeting that goal. So if the donors want to see short-term results, they’re excited about seeing those beds full, and there’s no incentive at that point for the shelters to rethink what they’re all about. Instead of being kind of the be-all and end-all, they may be able to provide transitional housing to permanent housing. But if they think that they are the solution, they’re actually not going to be able to get people to end homelessness.
Homelessness and mass incarceration have the irony of policymakers becoming addicted to policies designed to protect society from addicts.
Denver: We had Rosanne Haggerty from Community Solutions on the show. She said when she looked at all the parts of the systems, and they were involved in this, she said that we had actually made it literally impossible for a person on the street to get permanent housing because there were so many mutually exclusive prerequisites that you just couldn’t get there. Another irony is that putting a roof over their head is actually cheaper than dealing with the homeless on the street. People don’t think about it that way; “ we can’t afford to do it.” We have to do it!
David: Much cheaper! That’s an excellent point. You also raised something else that Roseanne said, which is whenever you hear: “we know what the solution should be…why can’t we seem to get to it?” You’re most likely dealing with this systems trap of trying to fix things with a quick fix, and in the course of implementing that quick fix, not only undermining people’s motivation to implement the fundamental solution, but as she said, over time, actually making it impossible to implement that fundamental solution.
That dynamic is the core dynamic of addiction. And so you have the irony of policy makers– with mass incarceration, with food aid—I’ll take food aid out for a moment. Homelessness and mass incarceration, you have the irony of policymakers becoming addicted to policies designed to protect society from addicts.
Denver: Let me take this to a nonprofit organization, from their perspective for a moment. Now, you know, so many nonprofits are under enormous pressure. They have maybe 30-, 60-, 90 days of cash available, and they’re led by passionate people. And when unmet need shows up at their doorstep, they’ll move heaven and earth in terms of trying to meet that need.
Conversely, the Nonprofit Finance Fund did a study, and the number one challenge the nonprofit organizations face was long-term financial stability. So the question I have for you is: How can we reconcile those two things to try to get long-term stability for the organization, while at the same time dealing with this unmet need that shows up? How do you navigate those waters?
David: Not easily. What I would say is: one, I think as a nonprofit, you have to think very carefully about whether helping people today– or how you help people today– is going to enable them to be better off down the road or not. And to the extent that these kinds of quick fixes are undermining your ability to create sustainable solutions, then I think you’ve got to think twice. If you can re-configure what you’re doing now in service of a more fundamental solution, then that’s a different story. That’s what you should be aiming for.
As an example, again, going back to homelessness, I think also around 5- or 10 years ago, the Pine Street Inn, which was the best-known homeless shelter in Boston, decided to reframe what it was about because the director saw the same people coming in over a 25-year period. She said, “What are we doing here? We’re not helping end homelessness by having the same people come back year after year.”
And so at that time, Housing First was starting to come in, and she recognized what they needed to do was shift how they thought about their work from being a shelter to being a real estate developer. So they started taking some of the money that they had and convincing their board to invest, instead of another shelter or more beds, to invest in the development of affordable housing. And so now, those people whom she housed for 25 years are increasingly having permanent places to live.
It doesn’t mean the shelter has gone away, but within the course of three weeks or something like that, her goal is to take new people coming in and, as best as possible, move them into permanent housing. It required her to convince the board of a new direction, to change the programs that the shelter was offering, to change often the staff if they didn’t have the skills to make that kind of transition, the types of capacity, where the money went… all of it had to shift. But in that reframing of this nonprofit, she was able to move the nonprofit into a more fundamental and sustainable way of dealing with homelessness.
We have to learn to tell ourselves a different story, one that honors the way things work in order to be able to shift them… instead of simply trying to impose on the way the world works some story that we tell ourselves that actually doesn’t work.
Once you see the circles you’ve been going in, you can write a different narrative. You can tell a different story.
Denver: That’s a good example. Systems Thinking – it sounds very analytical, logical, a little bit left-brained, if I may say, but you also say it’s very much about storytelling. Tell us how storytelling fits into… and the role it plays in systems thinking.
David: Great question. One way to think about systems thinking is that it’s narrative therapy. We’re actually learning to recognize the stories we do tell ourselves, those underlying beliefs and assumptions we have about the way we think the world should work… like shelters should end homelessness; food aid should end starvation. And discover that the way the world works is actually different from the way we think it should work. So we have to learn to tell ourselves a different story, one that honors the way things work in order to be able to shift them… instead of simply trying to impose on the way the world works some story that we tell ourselves that actually doesn’t work.
So as an example, I remember in a workshop years ago: you learn to draw circles, basically, because the world – its complex systems – behave and evolve in circular ways, not linear ways. So this guy was using these tools to work on a problem he’d been working on for years, and he had this great insight and he said, “Hey, David! To think I’ve been going in circles on this for years!” And I said, “No. The problem isn’t that you’ve been going in circles. The problem is you haven’t seen the circles you’ve been going in.” Once you see the circles you’ve been going in, you can write a different narrative. You can tell a different story.
Moreover, these stories are so compelling because there are these system traps, these classical stories, archetypal stories that we keep repeating if we’re not aware of what they are. So for example, when I pick up after my son, when I pick up his clothes, it’s the same dynamic as providing food aid against starvation, mass incarceration to deal with fear of crime, or shelters to deal with homelessness. It’s actually the same story.
We are all part of the systems we’re trying to change, and the greatest leverage we have is in becoming more aware first of our own intentions, our own assumptions, and our own behavior. If we can recognize how those are impacting the performance of the system today and begin to shift those in ourselves, we will create the ripple effects that enable other parts of the system to change as well.
Denver: Let me close with this, David. When you’re looking at a problem and thinking about how to go about addressing it, you have suggested that a really good place to start might be a look in the mirror. Now, not too many of us think about starting with ourselves. Why do you say that’s a good idea?
David: Well, Bill Torbert who is a Professor Emeritus of Leadership at Boston College had this wonderful way of saying it. He said, “If you are not aware of how you’re part of the problem, you can’t be part of the solution.” Which kind of turns the way we think about these things on its head.
Denver: It sure does!
David: Most of us think we’re part of the solution, and if there’s a problem, it’s caused by other people. I don’t use that mindset to then turn the blame from finger-pointing elsewhere to pointing the finger at ourselves. I actually view it as a tool of empowerment. We are all part of the systems we’re trying to change, and the greatest leverage we have is in becoming more aware first of our own intentions, our own assumptions, and our own behavior. If we can recognize how those are impacting the performance of the system today, and begin to shift those in ourselves, we will create the ripple effects that enable other parts of the system to change as well.
Denver: Well, as you’ve said many times, so much of this begins with awareness. David Peter Stroh, the Author of Systems Thinking for Social Change, one of those books that’s becoming more and more relevant every day, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. In addition to buying the book, which I heartily recommend, is there a place people can go to get more information about systems thinking?
David: Absolutely! Grantmakers for Effective Organizations has published a Systems Grantmaking Resource Guide. If you’re a member of GEO, you can get that. It’s got about 40 different tools and processes related to a systemic approach to grantmaking.
In addition, there is a website called the Systems Thinker that is a free archive of over 800 articles written, published over about 20-, 25-year period in a journal called The Systems Thinker…a newsletter called The Systems Thinker on systems thinking and organizational learning overall. That archive was funded by The Omidyar Group, which, by the way, is the only foundation that I know of so far that has a group of systems thinkers on its own staff because they recognize the power of this.
Denver: Good stuff! And I got to get them on the show. Thanks very much, David. It was a real pleasure to have you on the program.
David: Thank you very much, Denver!
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