12 April 2008

Whole System Change

“For years I labored with the idea of reforming the existing institutions of society, a little change here, a little change there. Now I feel quite differently. I think you’ve got to have a reconstruction out of the entire society, a revolution of values.”
- Martin Luther King
The only effective way to change a piece of a system is to change the whole system it is part of.
Imagine you've been asked to "change" the missing piece of the puzzle in this picture. You have complete freedom to change this piece but you need to know two things about this change effort. One, no matter what you do, you still have to fit in with the pieces around you. Two, those pieces are not changing.
We live in a world of inter-locking pieces. What you can do with your second grade class (Sandi) is severely constrained by what is done in first and third grade. Further, all that is limited by what your society thinks is important, what they expect of education.
What you can do with your engineering design group is limited by marketing and manufacturing. What they do is, in turn, limited by what senior management thinks - or even what your customers think - is important, what they expect of your product and your company.
Given that we live in a world of inter-locking systems, change is evasive. It is nearly impossible. Once pieces are in place, they tend to prop one another up. Our education system creates a particular way of thinking and a particular kind of graduate who goes out into the world to work in companies that, among other things, have a particular kind of expectation about who to hire out of the education system. Government is shaped by business and education and religion - all these pieces shape and mold each other. And all of these pieces have to fit together. In any coherent and functioning society, that is.
If you want to make sweeping changes in design, you'll involve manufacturing and marketing. Any real change is, by definition, inclusive. And it does not begin with efficiency or improvement. Rather, it begins with a vision of what could be. And this vision doesn't know functional pigeonholes or fit neatly within a particular expertise. Rather, it gives all that a new context.
Of all the candidates, Barack Obama has become most closely associated with change. Given the approach and instincts (I cannot bring myself to call it a philosophy) of the current administration, one can only applaud a call for change. But if he is serious, it suggests a larger vision than an idea about how to change the presidency.
A real change to the presidency will involve far more than just the presidency. Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt were the last two presidents to transform the presidency. They did not initiate change, really, so much as display a genius for exploiting times of great upheaval. The changes they made to the presidency and government were almost incidental to the change they made to how Americans saw the world and America's role in it.
If Barack Obama can offer a compelling vision of the world and America's role in it, he can deliver the change he promises. If he shrinks from that - if he limits himself to defining the presidency and government only - he'll fail to change the very piece on which he focuses.
Whole system change always sweeps up the pieces with it. Piece-meal change always gets overwhelmed by un-moving, un-responsive, and larger systems. To effect change, you have to speak over the head of the what you want to change. A change in vision means a change in context. When the context changes, the pieces of the system respond. Given that systems reject pieces that don't support its functioning, the only real way to change a piece is to change the system. We need a conversation about the society we want to create.
[And thanks to Jordan for the conversation that provoked this today.]


jen said...

do i ever know this. dealing w/ homelessness for the past decade, i've had to accept how it will never really end no matter how good we are b/c forces at large really aren't invested in seeing this happen. a deeply frustrating situation that beckons for leadership at broad levels, starting at the top.

Sometimes Saintly Nick said...

Well written and well said, Ron.

Gypsy at Heart said...

What Sometimes Saintly Nick said.

Lifehiker said...

"Change begins with a vision of what could be." Those are the most important words in your post.

Americans are pretty good at accomplishing big goals. We put a man on the moon with pitiful little computers in the spaceship. We did a pretty good job of moving civil rights in the right direction. In both cases, leaders were able to communicate a vision that others could believe and implement.

Hillary and McCain are not visionaries, but Obama is. He also has excellent communications skills and a personal history that shows that miracles can happen in America if someone has a vision.

We need new visions of both America and America's role in the world. Obama's the only candidate who would have the freedom (from vested interests) to stand up, tell the truth, and offer America a more hopeful and successful future if we want to work for it.

Ron Davison said...

I have nothing but admiration for you in that effort. Like you say, the problem of homelessness is not just a problem of homelessness. These seem to me to be design issues - guaranteed problems given the way that markets are structured. It always seem like saying something like this must sound to others like 'blah, blah, blah.'

Nick & Milena,
thanks for encouragement. Your words are so much better than "huh?"

Well said. I wonder what the trick is to making future possibility soudn like present inevitabiity? That seems like the trick, no?

cce said...

I think you should send this post to Obama's handlers. In the best case scenario they all will be inspired. In the worst case scenario they will become terrified and cede the race to Hillary and go home to lick wounds and realize they never meant to change anything, only talk about it. I sincerely hope they are up for the arduous task of reform. I fear they are all just talking election day smack.

Ron Davison said...

it's funny you should say that because the Obama camp has been hounding me for ideas lately. I tell them - just read the blog and leave comments like everyone else.

Lifehiker said...

Here's a little secret about how to sell a new vision: create a crisis!

Any large organization, company or country has an embedded set of operating principles. As you said, these interlocking systems make change very hard to accomplish. Somehow, people have to be convinced that change is the only option. At that point they become willing to break through the interlocks.

The next president needs to do some shock therapy: "This is the course we're on, and this is where we'll be in 10-20-30 years if we don't change our ways in (whatever). This is what we need to do in order to overcome this (whatever). Every day we wait makes it harder for us to succeed. We can do this! Everyone is going to do their part, one step at a time, and this is where we'll be when we're done! Anyone who stands in the way will be hurting us all."

That's how wars got won. That's how civil rights got won. That's how we will beat America's tough problems if we get a leader capable of selling good visions for our future.

HRH said...

The thing about change is that it is easy to want it because it is different. It is not so easy to do it because it is different. Everybody's different is different. That is why politicians call for change without details. Everyone fills in the details in their own head thinking the politician agrees with them. Nobody agrees with everyone...

Ron Davison said...

I think that you are right on. To get a majority of folks to move along with something, there needs to be a sense of emergency.

"everybody's different is different" is a rather brilliant way of putting it. I think that this is the simplest way to explain why third parties have never gained traction.