Lewis Thomas, the award-winning medical essayist, observed, “When you are confronted by any complex social system … with things about it that you’re dissatisfied with and anxious to fix, you cannot just step in and set about fixing with much hope of helping. This is one of the sore discouragements of our time.”

Consider the following headlines all based on true stories, which epitomize Thomas’s insight:

  • Shelters increase homelessness
  • Food aid increases starvation
  • Drug busts increase drug-related crime
  • Job training programs increase unemployment

 These stories share specific characteristics:

  1. The solutions that were implemented seem obvious at the time and in fact often help achieve the desired results in the short term. For example, it is natural to provide shelter, even temporary, for people who are homeless or offer food aid when people are starving.
  2. The longer term impacts of the same solution tend to neutralize short-term gains or even make things worse in the long term. For example, temporary shelters often lead to the ironic consequence of reducing the visibility of the homeless population, which reduces community pressure to solve the problem permanently.
  3. The negative consequences of these solutions are unintentional; everyone is doing the best they can with what they know at the time.
  4. When the problem recurs, people fail to see their responsibility for the recurrence.

 How can our good intentions lead to such disappointing results? The reason lies in part because of our tendency to apply linear thinking to complex, non-linear problems. Systems and linear thinking differ in several important respects:

Dimension

Linear Thinking

Systems Thinking

Causality

There is a direct connection between problem symptoms and their underlying causes.

System performance is largely determined by interdependencies among system elements that are indirect, circular, and non-obvious.

Time

A policy that achieves short-term success assures long-term success.

The unintended and delayed consequences of most quick fixes neutralize or reverse immediate gains over time.

Responsibility

Most problems are caused by external factors beyond our control.

Because actions taken by one group often have unintended and delayed consequences on its own performance as well as the behavior of others, each group tends to unwittingly contribute to the very problems it tries to solve and to undermine the effectiveness of others.

Strategy

In order to improve the performance of the whole, we must improve the performance of its parts.

Tackle many independent initiatives simultaneously to improve all the parts.

In order to improve the performance of the whole, we must improve relationships among the parts.

 

Identify a few key interdependencies that have the greatest leverage on system-wide performance (aka leverage points) and shift them in a sustained, coordinated way over time.

 

 A linear approach to ending homelessness might lead municipalities to expand their shelter system because it enables homeless people to have a roof over their head at night. However, shelters create several unintended consequences. They hide the seriousness of the problem and create incentives to maintain 100% bed utilization instead of reduce shelter use in favour of permanent housing. By contrast a systems view encourages shelters to consider how their work might contribute to permanently housing the people they serve.

Similarly, sending food aid to alleviate starvation can produce such unintended consequences as depressed local food prices that deter local agricultural development and leave people even more vulnerable to food shortages in the future. From a systemic view, temporary food aid only exacerbates the problem in the long run unless it is coupled with supports for local agriculture.