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Why systems thinking changes everything for activists and reformers

Duncan Green's picture

This week, the Guardian ran a very nicely edited ‘long read’ extract from How Change Happens covering some of the book’s central arguments, under the title Radical Thinking Reveals the Secrets of Making Change Happen. Here it is:

Political and economic earthquakes are often sudden and unforeseeable, despite the false pundits who pop up later to claim they predicted them all along – take the fall of the Berlin Wall, the 2008 global financial crisis, or the Arab Spring (and ensuing winter). Even at a personal level, change is largely unpredictable: how many of us can say our lives have gone according to the plans we had as 16-year-olds?

The essential mystery of the future poses a huge challenge to activists. If change is only explicable in the rear-view mirror, how can we accurately envision the future changes we seek, let alone achieve them? How can we be sure our proposals will make things better, and not fall victim to unintended consequences? People employ many concepts to grapple with such questions. I find “systems” and “complexity” two of the most helpful.

A “system” is an interconnected set of elements coherently organised in a way that achieves something. It is more than the sum of its parts: a body is more than an aggregate of individual cells; a university is not merely an agglomeration of individual students, professors, and buildings; an ecosystem is not just a set of individual plants and animals.

A defining property of human systems is complexity: because of the sheer number of relationships and feedback loops among their many elements, they cannot be reduced to simple chains of cause and effect. Think of a crowd on a city street, or a flock of starlings wheeling in the sky at dusk. Even with supercomputers, it is impossible to predict the movement of any given person or starling, but there is order; amazingly few collisions occur even on the most crowded streets.

In complex systems, change results from the interplay of many diverse and apparently unrelated factors. Those of us engaged in seeking change need to identify which elements are important and understand how they interact.

My interest in systems thinking began when collecting stories for my book From Poverty to Power. The light-bulb moment came on a visit to India’s Bundelkhand region, where the poor fishing communities of Tikamgarh had won rights to more than 150 large ponds. In that struggle numerous factors interacted to create change. First, a technological shift triggered changes in behaviour: the introduction of new varieties of fish, which made the ponds more profitable, induced landlords to seize ponds that had been communal. Conflict then built pressure for government action: a group of 12 brave young fishers in one village fought back, prompting a series of violent clashes that radicalized and inspired other communities; women’s groups were organized for the first time, taking control of nine ponds. Enlightened politicians and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) helped pass new laws and the police amazed everyone by enforcing them.

The fishing communities were the real heroes of the story. They tenaciously faced down a violent campaign of intimidation, moved from direct action to advocacy, and ended up winning not only access to the ponds but a series of legal and policy changes that benefited all fishing families.

The neat narrative sequence of cause and effect I’ve just written, of course, is only possible in hindsight. In the thick of the action, no-one could have said why the various actors acted as they did, or what transformed the relative power of each. Tikamgarh’s experience highlights how unpredictable is the interaction between structures (such as state institutions), agency (by communities and individuals), and the broader context (characterized by shifts in technology, environment, demography, or norms).

Unfortunately, the way we commonly think about change projects onto the future the neat narratives we draw from the past. Many of the mental models we use are linear plans – “if A, then B” – with profound consequences in terms of failure, frustration, and missed opportunities. As Mike Tyson memorably said, “Everyone has a plan ’til they get punched in the mouth”.

E Pluribus Unum (out of many one)

Patrick Field's picture

Consider editing a major planning document with 5 federal agencies, 3 agencies each in 6 states, 15 non-profit organizations, three to four layers each. That equals ninety commenters and thousands of comments over multiple drafts. That’s any author’s nightmare! Comments come in late. Multiple commenters from a single agency contradict one another. A new high-level commenter suddenly demands a host of changes without any context, history, or understanding of why you are where you are. This is the reality for many planners, coordinators, and technical writers in multi-stakeholder processes. How in the world do you manage wide-ranging opinions on topics from common usage to fundamental substance, from multiple commenters, and get a product out and done?

Given our experience engaging with talented (and overworked and sometimes frustrated) convenors and coordinators working on issues from oceans planning to government transparency, we at CBI wanted to offer some good practices for such a challenging task. How do you ensure transparency and create legitimacy? How do you provide reasonable procedures for coordination and bring the process to a decisive end? How can you be thorough and collaborative without collapsing under complexity and confusion? In short, what to do?

Establish norms and expectations A coordinator*’s job, first and foremost, is to help establish norms and expectations for the process. The basic expectations and norms should include roles and responsibilities, the process or procedures for how comments are collected and considered, schedules and milestones, and how decisions will be made. It’s best if the group builds norms and expectations together rather than if they are imposed from above or the side. Then, when the coordinator has to “bring the hammer down,” she can remind the offending party of the process the group jointly established. Lastly, whatever the norms, expectations, and process established, the participants will likely need reminders all along the way, and sometimes not just via email, but in direct conversation, be that face-to-face or over the phone. Yes, picking up the phone can help!

Ensure transparency There’s nothing worse than your comments being ignored or the final product seemingly almost unrelated to earlier drafts. The coordinator’s job is to ensure transparency in multiple ways. First, the process should be transparent: this is how and when decisions will be made, and by whom. Second, comments need to be transparent to all who are participating. This involves providing mechanisms so that every commenter can see the comments of others and not wonder who said what. Third, the disposition of those comments needs to be transparent.

In a fast-moving, complex environment, it may be too much to ask for a detailed responsive summary often provided by federal agencies in federal rulemaking. But, a coordinator can deploy any number of techniques. A coordinator can provide a concise summary of key comments or comment themes and how she addressed them. A coordinator can provide a section-by-section redline document (which may or may not include all the comments, depending on how many and how messy it makes the document). A coordinator can take key issues and build a comment matrix of original text, comments, changes, and reasons why comments were not accepted.

Lastly, a coordinator may need to reconcile the comments through group process and meetings so she can rely on the participants themselves to reconcile differences and not hope she gets it “right enough.” Technologies like Google Docs, WebEx, Zoom, and others allow you to share your screen and even share the document for joint, simultaneous editing.

Centralize tracking The mechanics of keeping track of multiple commenters, comments, and versions of the document can be daunting. But here, logistical and technical expertise can be very helpful. The coordinator needs to establish a tool or tools to track the changing nature of the document. First, providing a procedure for version control and a nomenclature is essential. Second, utilizing Google Docs, DropBox, or other on-line tools can keep versions, comments, and responses all in one place and accessible to those who need them. Third, ensuring there is one or only a few coordinators, who can be the contact person as well as keep the whole in her head as she is buffeted by contradictory comments, needs, and expectations from all directions, is very important.

Provide comment guidance To help guide the process, a coordinator should provide clarity on what to comment on. It’s one thing to say, here’s the document and comment away. It’s another thing to say: 1) please focus on the introduction, key findings, and draft recommendations; 2) don’t focus on style or visuals at this time; and, 3) leave copy editing for later drafts. Of course, some participants will not be able to help themselves. They’ll fix commas, semi-colons, and provide lots of visual ideas. But most will appreciate the direction. They are busy people too with too many things to do.

In the custody of angst

Sina Odugbemi's picture

It has been building up for months… as events and data points have mounted. Now, in the global circles that I move in both physically and intellectually what people are experiencing can be summed up in one phrase and one phrase only: utter bewilderment. People are asking: What is happening to the world? Universities, schools, workplaces are organizing counselling and venting sessions. Families, particularly extended families, are being sundered by divisions over preferences in public affairs. The feeling persists that global affairs might have taken a dark turn, perhaps irretrievably. People look at the future with dread. They look at the global calendar of significant mass decisions and ask plaintively: Where is the next shock going to come from? Others, in utter despair, have given up all hope. They forecast a series of dominoes falling…and crashing.

In other words, we now have multitudes in the overmastering claws of angst. Existentialist philosophers describe angst as an unavoidable and ever present disquiet or dread or anxiety about life, the individual life. For, each human being on earth knows that tragedy is potentially just around every corner. There is so much about our lives that we cannot control and we know only too well that life can suddenly go awry. However, in this essay I use angst in a connected but slightly broader sense, as in the top definition of the word that Google offers: “a feeling of deep anxiety or dread, typically an unfocused one about the human condition or the state of the world in general.”

The question is: why are so many people angst-ridden? I would argue that we have to look beyond particular events since the condition has been created by a series of political developments and decisions around the world.

Weekly wire: The global forum

Roxanne Bauer's picture

These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.

A Lesson from Latin America: Media Reform Needs People Power
CIMA

Policy reform in favor of more plural and independent media is possible when global networks collaborate with national activists. This is the important lesson gleaned from a series of examples in Latin America that are the subject of a new book that I co-authored with Maria Soledad Segura titled Media Movements: Civil Society and Policy Reform in Latin America (Zed/U of Chicago Press). Washington, DC, is home to many global actors committed to supporting freedom of information, fighting oppressive libel laws and promoting plural media ownership—among other key elements to a vibrant and free media. The key lesson for them is that they are unlikely to succeed alone. In fact, we did not find any examples of rapid and sustainable changes single-handedly driven by global programs. Instead, we found success stories where global actors worked patiently and diligently with local activities, building awareness and strong coalitions on the ground that could act when opportune conditions or political junctures arose.

Why Cities Are the Future for Farming
National Geographic

The landscape of our food future appears bleak, if not apocalyptic. Humanity’s impact on the environment has become undeniable and will continue to manifest itself in ways already familiar to us, except on a grander scale. In a warmer world, heavier floods, more intense droughts, and unpredictable, violent, and increasingly frequent storms could become a new normal. Little wonder that the theme for this year's World Food Day, which happens on Sunday, is “Climate is changing. Food and agriculture must too.” The need for an agricultural sea change was also tackled at the recent South by South Lawn, President Obama’s festival of art, ideas, and action (inspired by the innovative drive of Austin’s SXSW), where I was honored to present.
 

Media (R)evolutions: World Day of Television

Darejani Markozashvili's picture

New developments and curiosities from a changing global media landscape: People, Spaces, Deliberation brings trends and events to your attention that illustrate that tomorrow's media environment will look very different from today's, and will have little resemblance to yesterday's.

“I believe television is going to be the test of the modern world, and that in this new opportunity to see beyond the range of our vision, we shall discover a new and unbearable disturbance of the modern peace, or a saving radiance in the sky. We shall stand or fall by television - of that I am quite sure.” E.B. White

Television has an enormous influence on people, bringing the news and entertainment to communities all over the world. In order to recognize the impact of television, in 1996, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 21 November as World Television Day. On Monday, 21 November 2016, the United Nations TV will host an open day at its studios for talks and interactive dialogues on its programming in observance of this day.

In an increasingly changing global media environment, with modern Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) such as computers, Internet, mobile phones, tablets, wearables, on the rise, television continues to be a resilient communication tool. However, the television industry needs to adapt to the changing landscape in order to remain relevant. One of the most dramatic changes in this industry is the growth in the number of connected TV sets worldwide. Internet connected TVs provide interactive features, such as online browsing, video-on-demand, video streaming and social networking. With the mixture of new and old viewing habits, connected TVs are drawing larger audiences. 

According to Digital TV Research, the number of connected TVs worldwide will reach the new high of 759 million by 2018, which is more than double of 2013 numbers (307.4 million).
 

Beyond rationalisation of Centrally Sponsored Schemes

Suvojit Chattopadhyay's picture

In August this year, the Government of India approved the recommendations made by the Sub-Group of Chief Ministers on Rationalisation of Centrally Sponsored Schemes (CSS). The rationalisation plan would first prune the existing 66 CSSs to 28, and then further divide them into three categories – six ‘core of the core’ schemes, 20 core schemes, and two optional schemes. The ‘core of the core’ schemes include the pension schemes, MNREGA, and four umbrella schemes targeting “vulnerable sections” of the population. Further, the flexi-funds component of the CSSs would be increased to 25% for the state governments to programme. Another set of recommendations were made around the modalities of release of funds. For instance, the release of a tranche of funds would no longer be dependent on producing an Utilisation Certificate of the previous instalment; and instead, it would be based on the submission of the instalment preceding the last one.

This is another step in the process of improving the governance of CSS in India, with the specific rationalisation exercise being prompted by the ongoing fiscal reorganisation between the centre and state governments. Starting last year, transfers from the centre to state governments went up by approximately INR 1.8 lakh crores. This was a result of the 14th Finance Commission recommendations which increased the devolution of the centre’s tax receipts to state governments from the prevailing 32% up to 42%. This reduced the ability of the central government to continue funding CSSs at their previous levels, and at the same time, provided state governments a greater measure of flexibility in financing its own priority development schemes.

Now Accepting Applications!! The 2017 World Bank - Annenberg Summer Institute in Reform Communication: Leadership, Strategy and Stakeholder Alignment

Darejani Markozashvili's picture

Instituting reforms is challenging. The changing environment of politics, the conflicting interests of multiple stakeholders, and contrary public opinions can all become obstacles to the success of a reform agenda.
 
So how can leaders and change agents create successful and sustainable reforms?

What is the role of strategic communication in planning, implementing and evaluating a reform? Join us for the 2017 World Bank - Annenberg Summer Institute in Reform Communication: Leadership, Strategy and Stakeholder Alignment to find answers to these important questions.
 
The seventh annual Summer Institute will be held at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, June 5 - June 16, 2017. During the 10-day program, participants will learn the most recent advances in communication and proven techniques in reform implementation. Participants will develop the skills required to bring about real change, leading to development results. Leaders will also connect with a global network of development professionals working on initiatives in the public, private and non-profit sectors.

Quote of the week: Leonard Cohen

Sina Odugbemi's picture

"Songs have a very specific purpose. They must be measured by their utility. Any jaunty little tune that can get you from one point to another as you drive, or get you through the dishes, or that can illuminate or dignify your courting, I always appreciate. And to console yourself when you're lonely, and to rejoice with another when you're happy. That's all we really do in human life.

Music is like bread. It is one of the fundamental nourishments that we have available, and there are many different varieties and degrees and grades. A song that is useful, that touches somebody, must be measured by that utility alone. 'Cheap music' is an uncharitable description. If it touches you, it's not cheap. From a certain point of view, all our emotions are cheap, but those are the only ones we've got. It's loneliness and longing and desire and celebration."

- Leonard Cohen, a Canadian singer, songwriter, poet and novelist. His work explored religion, politics, isolation, and personal relationships. He is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest lyricists of all time. Cohen was inducted into both the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame as well as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2011, Cohen received one of the Prince of Asturias Awards for literature and the ninth Glenn Gould Prize. He died November 7, 2016, aged 82, at his home in Los Angeles, California, U.S.

The practice and craft of multistakeholder governance

Stefaan Verhulst's picture

In a new paper by Stefaan G. Verhulst at Global Partners Digital, Verhulst argues: “In recent years, multistakeholderism has become something of a catchphrase in discussions of Internet governance. This follows decades of attempts to identify a system of governance that would be sufficiently flexible, yet at the same time effective enough to manage the decentralized, non-hierarchical global network that is today used by more than 3 billion people. In the early years of the Internet, the prevailing view was that government should stay out of governance; market forces and self-regulation, it was believed, would suffice to create order and enforce standards of behavior. This view was memorably captured by John Perry Barlow’s 1996 “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” which dramatically announced: “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather”.

However, the shortcomings of this view have become apparent as the Internet has grown in scale and complexity, and as it has increasingly entered the course of everyday life. There is now a growing sense—perhaps even an emerging consensus—that markets and self-policing cannot address some of the important challenges confronting the Internet, including the need to protect privacy, ensure security, and limit fragmentation on a diverse and multi-faceted network. As the number of users has grown, so have calls for the protection of important public and consumer interests.

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