Chapter 2: Seeing Complexity

When we are least watching, (as candid camera would have it say) ‘these systemic structures (archetypes) take over and run our realities!’  Gradually (like a boiled frog) we become sucked into them (think waterholes) and continue that way not realizing how such changes may be happening to us.

Each time these structures reinforce themselves, they actually lead us away from reaching our intended goals in our realities.  Surprisingly, these structures also have a way of moving these realities towards the ‘goals set by the structures themselves’.  These goals can look like, economic recessions, disputes between labour and management, HIV/AIDs endemics, declining levels of educational standards, environmental decays, declining rainfall levels, droughts, declining levels of agricultural and manufacturing outputs, increasing levels of poverty, increasing levels of divorces, unemployment, budget deficits, and so on.  We call them persistent problems.  The systemic structures call them their goals.

All of these changes do not show up at the same time, nor are the declines apparent as the change happens gradually over time so much so that we become numb to the levels of actual change itself.  They are usually only picked up when we plot the behaviour of these changes over time on a graph.  Deliberately.

That’s when we see these dynamic complexities at play.

These structures stay hidden from our perspectives and avoid detection until there is a crisis at hand.  When however there is a crisis, it becomes difficult to find and locate these structures as we turn ourselves into teams intent on ‘managing the crisis’ and ‘put out the fires’.  Think fireman.  And when the fires are ‘put out’, we usually put away our fireman hat and get back to where we were before the fires erupted – back to our daily grind of things, rather than trying to figure out what brought on the fires and more importantly what causes their recurrent nature.

As a result, we have very little experiences in life to be able to detect, see, understand and deal with dynamic complexities.  As such we begin to assume several myths on how we should be handling and working with them.

Here are a few critical ones, that I hear in the course of my work:

Myth #1: System Archetypes stop us from thinking on our own.

We think we are doing the thinking, but we really are not.  When we stay long enough with this work, we begin to realize that these structures are leading us to think in particular ways and we do not even know that it is happening to us.

The more I am with this work, the more I am seeing this: Seeing the archetypes help us become more aware of ‘what is leading us to think in the ways (traps) we do think (and get trapped within)’.  They are not aids in thinking.  Instead they help us appreciate why and what is causing us to think in particular ways.  It really is a way of learning to stand beside ourselves and our thoughts and to watch us being trapped again and again by these structures.  As such they:

  1. Help us appreciate the paradigms (and assumptions we hold within it) that grip us on to our perceptions of reality; and,
  2. Help us see how we bring ourselves back to the very problems we were trying to solve.  That they just would not go away.  We say these problems have become stubborn.  They sit there in national and corporate development plans, decades after decades.  The irony is that most corporate planning leaders do not stay around for as long.

So watch out when you go for the next corporate planning process!  Check if you really are the one doing the thinking or the structures are leading us to think in particular ways or lead us to particular solutions.  In which case, the thinking has already been done for you and we do not realize that it happened?

Myth #2: System Archetypes tell us what the solutions are

What raises my curiosity is when I see archetypes or causal structures being used to ‘test and present’ solutions.  That would be using the structures to do ‘balancing’ or corrections to a problem rather and not using it to understand what is reinforcing the problem.

Archetypes, or for that matter any causal diagram (should and) were not meant for use in doing corrections.  Or to test solutions we have decided upon.

The archetypes were primarily meant to help us, as we watch the causalities (the arrows in the diagram), be able to step back from the trees so that we may see the forest. To enable us to see the whole that is affecting the parts and cause the recurrent nature of stubborn problems.

So, for example, a discussion on health facilities cannot exclude a discussion on what’s causing people to fall sick (which may be beyond ‘the control and mandate of the hospital’ but such a line of thinking cannot be ignored) and to draw a graph to see the rates at which it may be happening.  It would not suffice to run off with a problem statement (how to increase hospital capacity or early discharges).

We would have to see the behaviour of the issue over time in a graph and face that reality to find ways to begin to understand it not just as a health practitioners but as a nation. The nation usually does not know such things are happening.  It typically knows ‘I am sick’.  Not HOW MUCH of ‘we are sick’.   The nation cannot absolve itself from understanding such realities.  And it is the works of public services to help the nation see and understand what is causing such realities amongst us.

If instead, the focus is on the infrastructure, then to me, it would be like continuing to ‘focus’ on the trees.  It is like focusing on ‘catching the criminal’ rather than ‘catching the cause’ [A criminal is not born.  It is caused].

Myth #3: System Archetypes are generic and do not apply to specific issues in life.  They are not practical!

Till we see what the realities are, and understand it, do not expect to solve it!  Seeing and understanding those realities is the purpose (I found use for) of systemic thinking. When we understand the realities it is fascinating for me to watch how much easily the citizens will jump in on their own (such as in taking care of their own health as a way to deal with congestion at the hospital). Because they now appreciate the consequences of their personal actions on the whole (or we say the system).

This action by government has to be brought back consistently till ‘the frog is boiled’!  Slowly but surely and consistently.  Just seeing such realities can sometime be ‘cool’ for a lot of people!  A case of just recognizing ‘I don’t know what I don’t know’.  All it took was to see the graph over time.  A work that has to be done by the systems thinker in the public service.

These systemic solutions are cheap, when we see them as a whole!

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