Are Our Systems Really Broken?

In my twenty years of consulting practice the idea that our systems are broken and need to be fixed has been ever-present. This was/is true of healthcare, finance, the environment and more. This has never been more true in my life time than right now when the question maybe is not about whether systems are broken but whether they are dying. Dying as part of normal, natural cycles of birth, growth, decay and death, including the last desperate gasps.

In the work I have been involved with over the last two decades (change management, systems thinking, strategic direction and culture shift), there has always been a curiosity and, more accurately, a fear about whether systems need to collapse entirely before something new emerges. We constantly want to fix things – systems, organizations and even (maybe especially) people.

Yet we know in times of crisis normal patterns of relationship can be interrupted; rules, policies, procedures and ways of working circumvented and results achieved faster than in normal, day to day circumstances where, even if the pace is fast, things do not seem to be accomplished quickly. These are conditions that consultants and organizations all over keep trying to replicate without crisis with varying degrees of success and more often failure.

Jerry Nagel and I often remind our clients that systems are perfectly designed to get the results they are getting and cultures are self-perpetuating. So, technically, the systems aren’t broken, but many are no longer delivering results we hope for or are satisfied with. Brexit, the US election, are perfect examples.

What happens, might happen, in total collapse? What ground would we stand on? How would we pick up the pieces and move forward? What if the collapse is so great there are almost no pieces to pick up – like the scenarios in the popular genre of dystopian novels and movies? In most works of fiction, no matter how desperate the aftermath of catastrophe, there are always some pieces to pick up.

Lately we have been using the 2 Loops of Systems Change, offered by Meg Wheatley and Deborah Frieze of the Berkana Institute, with our clients and there is an immediate resonance with the concepts and roles described.

Systems work in cycles – just like life itself. The length of time of the cycles may vary from a few years to decades to centuries and maybe even eons. There is a time of birth, growth, maturity, decay and eventually death. Think, for example, of farming. Originally it was hunter/gather, then people began to deliberately plant crops and farming in the form of small farms existed for a long time. It grew into industrial farming where it is almost impossible to sustain smaller farms. And we are back to a point where people want to track their food from farm to table, plant community gardens and eat organic.

New life is already being brought forth long before death, during the maturity or peak phase of a system. The seeds of the new already exist within the structures of the old. slide1

Innovators, trail blazers and pioneers are always playing around with new ideas. Some of those new ideas seem completely off the wall to many who are still reveling in the old system and do not yet see the need for the new or innovation. Think energy. During the oil crisis back in the 1970s and 80s, there was speculation that oil had peaked. During that time, there were people and small companies experimenting with other forms of energy – solar, wind, water. It was slow going for decades, some of the experimentation was expensive and there was not a lot of support for ideas that seemed crazy or impossible to some, especially to those attached to the old system. Forty years later, many of these forms of energy are now more cost effective and environmentally friendly than oil. It was not easy to see or believe in this possible future at the time.

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Embodying the 2 Loops of Systems Change

Innovators are often alone in their quests and many of their ideas fail. Since no idea is offered in complete isolation – others are also conceiving of ideas to address the same or similar challenges – a first step is in naming the innovators and beginning to connect them in networks. In this way they begin to learn with and from each other. They learn together through both success and failure and they are no longer in it alone.

As the need for innovation becomes more apparent and urgent, there are people within the mature or peak system who take notice and work within the current system to steward or champion the new ideas and the people who generate them to provide protection so this work can continue to advance. Sometimes the role is as a toxic handler – to keep the dysfunctionality of a system that is moving past its prime from interfering in the development of the new.

At the same time, one of the greatest roles in the mature system as it declines is in hospicing the old so it doesn’t completely collapse into chaos and so that that good is not thrown out with what no longer works. The biggest challenge in these days is who are the protectors, the stewards, the hospice workers? Will they/we be able to do this work or will the burden be too great, the rate of collapse now so swift that it will be a deep move into chaos?

As the tentative new innovations and ideas gain more strength and more form, as they begin to coalesce into new networks and communities of practice, it is critical to nurture the emerging life force that will influence and shape the new system. As momentum grows, this grows into a system of influence where choices become clear. Illuminating the choice between the old and the new gives curious and reluctant adopters of the new the opportunity to make this choice and as more and more people choose the new, the new system takes hold.

While I carry some anxieties in these early days of 2017 about our systems and our future, I also carry hope although I am not sure what it will take to release the old and gravitate toward the new. I do know 2017 is calling on us loud and clear to not be silent, to not just watch, but to stand up and be involved in the new systems that will call forth and support our humanity.

The pressing question in the days ahead is who are the innovators and trailblazers? How do we keep connecting people, ideas and networks in ways to build strength, momentum and opportunity? How can the old systems of influence, and people grasping for power, be prevented from crushing the new? And how do we create the stories of the new in ways that brings more people on board.

Are our systems failing us? The answer would appear to be yes. But not because they are broken, because they are coming to the end of their time. Will we be courageous enough to fight if necessary for what is waiting to be born?

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Innovators and Pioneers in Systems Change

In Utah for Healthier Health Care Systems Now (January 11-13, 2012), we used the 2 Loops Model of Systems Change as one of the framing references for why we were gathered. It is a tool and a framing to understand the work we are individually and collectively in that shifts the shape of health care.  The two loops model looks like this:

 

The first loop represents the old system, the one we often name as the dying system.  The second loop represents the new system, the one we keep claiming we want, the one we think cannot emerge by fiddling with the old, the one we believe is needed to bring our current systems out of crisis.

The problem is, when we begin to think about the complexity of something like health care, where there are so many jurisdictions, so many players, so many interlocking systems,  trying to imagine what this new system or systems could be becomes paralyzing.  The conversation often becomes philosophical and theoretical.  It largely comes from an intellectual and cognitive place focused on all the things that need to shift that are outside our circle of influence.

Some of the frustration in being innovators inside of systems is that the systems begin to push back on the work in small and large ways, leading to the exhaustion, frustration and disillusionment so many leaders in health care experience.  This is all part of the old narrative.  Of course this showed up in our conversations in Utah to greater and lesser degrees depending on the questions, depending on who was in the conversation at any given time.  Any time we were in that conversation, thinking about the new system, it didn’t feel like a new conversation.

So, how could we be in conversation about Healthier Health Care Systems Now without  focusing on the second loop or the new system?  Well, by remembering who we are – pioneers and innovators in health systems – working under the first loop – in the in-between spaces – championing the new or being championed.  We began to focus in on and explore new questions: Where are the edges of my work?  What is the new territory I could begin to walk when I go home?  How can I draw on the resources in the room to expand my thinking, even turn it upside down and on its head – like the person who relies on gift economy in her practice, for her livelihood?  What more becomes possible in generative spaces with other innovators?  This was a different conversation, in tone, texture and energy.  This one did not come from the head. It was embodied in a whole new way – the beginnings of a new narrative of health.

The awareness of the old narrative and of the stuck places infiltrated us in the best of ways at the end of the first day of our three day gathering.   Someone suggested what we needed to do was create a vision of the new.  Ordinarily I might agree.  In this case though, that didn’t feel right.  It felt like it would take us further off track given that our roomful of people were geographically stretched from coast to coast across two countries with countless “systems”?

So, without taking our eye off the intention of shifting the narrative of health, we refocused on innovating and pioneering and guerrilla tactics of  hosting, collaborating and co-creating, engaging those around us in this journey that is health.  We didn’t leave with a specified vision of the new system.  We left heartened in our respective journeys, knowing the way to the future is through new processes, deeper conversations and finding our way with as many of our friends and colleagues as we can attract, engage and embolden along the way.

As we continue to shine the light on the experiments already underway, the successes, the challenges and the “failures”, and tap into the individual and collective resilience that is fighting to emerge, we can remember it is a journey that will shift and change as we go.  We remember life actually wants to help and it wants to heal. If we focus on how to expand our individual systems of influence and share those stories with our friends, our collective system of influence automatically begins to expand.  What seems like isolated work informs pockets of work elsewhere and we grow an energetic field that is part of the new, part of the second loop and is fueled by everyone stepping into innovative, courageous and pioneering ideas and projects.

I still can’t see what that second loop is for health care – other than it is about health and it is healthier.  I’m not sure anyone who showed up for this conversation can see the second loop either.  But I am absolutely sure that the innovators and pioneers are already prototyping what’s possible, what’s new, and in this work more and more of the new and the new narrative will show up.  I am reinvigorated by what’s possible, by the people who continue to explore these questions, who challenge the status quo, despite possible personal risks in doing so and know that there are better and more healthy ways to engage health care.

I and my hosting mates are committed to convening more of these conversations with people compelled to be in them to grow the field.  We envision large gatherings of people convening in new ways, continuing to innovate our way into the new system(s) so that maybe one day we will wake up and see in front of our eyes what we once thought impossible – a new generative system of health resilient enough and healthy enough to be sustainable in unexpected and beautiful ways.   If we take our eyes off the urgent need for something that feels impossible and put it in the places where possibility thrives… well, what more is there to imagine or say?

Steve Ryman, Tenneson Woolf, Kathy Jourdain, Marc Parnes

 

 

2 loops of systems change