Why is it sometimes so incredibly difficult to change one’s behavior? Why do some events and outcomes seem to repeat themselves over and over regardless of our best attempts to change them? And why do some countries and areas have more crime, poverty and other societal issues than others? If you have read my older posts, you might agree with me that crime and poverty are not first and foremost the failing of an individual, but the results of system level problems. In this blog post I want to introduce an effective systems thinking approach for identifying the root causes of systemic problems.
The tip of the iceberg
We humans tend to become pre-occupied with reacting to events that require our immediate attention. I’m guessing this is partly because of our ancestors’ survival instincts. Our primitive ancestors were forced to react immediately – to fight or flight – to threats in their environment or perish. Being armed with the same instincts, our emotions guide us to quickly react to arising problems. This is a necessary skill if you want to survive in the nature, but the bias towards the immediate sometimes prevents us from understanding the real reasons behind certain problems. The problem is that our instincts are not always so good at recognizing which problems are truly important and which ones are merely urgent. This hinders our ability to see the bigger picture and to recognize slowly evolving changes affecting us.
With increased complexity, the issues we deal with as individuals and as a society require much deeper understanding than the problems our ancestors had to face. Quick fixes never work because the underlying root causes are left untreated. To make matters worse, our ancestors’ survival instincts cause us to over-react emotionally even when the problem at hand would require us to keep our cool. News and other media amplify this problem by giving emphasis on bad news. The media also tends to focus on reporting one-time events, celebrity news and entertainment, which distorts people’s world view and hides the real issues.
The over-emphasis on one-time events is dangerous. It prevents us from understanding the real problems behind issues and creates a quick-fix culture. If the economy is down, we blame the government. When there is disease, we treat the symptoms. Where there is poverty, we give money to the poor or blame the individual. What we need to understand is that events and the perceived state of affairs are the end results of complex processes instead of simple cause-effect relationships. They are only the tip of an iceberg.
What is hiding under water?
How can we re-orient ourselves to understand the whole iceberg? Peter Senge, a well-known organizational learning expert and a systems thinker, tackles the issue in his book The Fifth Discipline. According to Senge, there are always multiple levels of explanation to a complex situation. Understanding the different levels of complexity can help us find the root causes of problems and prevents us from jumping into conclusions about a situation. Take a look:
I recently read a news piece about a Finnish nickel mine company, situated in my home region Kainuu. The article stated that the company had failed the expectations of its shareholders and the people in the region. The article also described comments from the shareholders, many of whom were small investors and had invested large portions of their savings on the company’s stock. Most of the shareholders interviewed in the article complained that the company and the CEO had failed them, with some stating that the company had outright fooled them out of their money.
The shareholder’s view represented in the article is a demonstration of an event-level explanation. It provides a simple cause-effect analysis of the situation where the mining company and its leadership are seen as the cause for the shareholders’ problems. Losing money is seen to be the outcome of the company’s bad managing. It is extremely tempting to find simple causes behind problems because it protects our own ego and presents the path of least resistance. Unfortunately event explanations are usually based on quickly made conclusions and generalizations that tell more about our own prejudices and fears than about reality.
Patterns of behavior
The second level of explanation already goes much deeper than event explanations. Rather than fixating on single events, we can attempt to find patterns of behavior and long-term trends that affect our lives and our society. In the nickel mine example we might find that small investors are often financially uneducated, which is why they are more easily tempted to place their savings into single investments. The problem definition is now fundamentally different from the previous one. Instead of perceiving the company’s management as the root cause, we would accept that companies sometimes do fail and conclude that the real problem is our inability to take this into account when investing.
Here’s another example: suppose the occurrences of type two diabetes in a nation are rising. A reactionary response, based on an event level explanation would be to prescribe medicine for the disease. Understanding patterns of behavior would, however, enable us to see that obesity is the real problem, which would prompt a very different solution. Instead of treating the symptom, i.e. diabetes, we would try to influence people’s behavior in some way to reduce obesity.
The third level of explanation is concerned with systemic structures. It essentially means identifying and understanding the structures that push us to behave in a certain way. Structures that affect our behavior include but are not restricted to:
- physical structures, e.g. transportation infrastructure, architecture
- cultural & social structures, e.g. social norms, social classes
- legal & institutional structures, e.g. laws, organizations, regimes
- economic structures, e.g. financial systems
All the above structures affect our behavior in many ways and are an extremely important to understand. A complex problem must be addressed in the context of the larger whole it is a part of. In the nickel mine case we could try to identify structures in the financial and cultural systems that drive people to take too much risk. Perhaps there are structures in place that cause us to look for short-term gain or to be impatient with our investments? We could also ask questions about our current economic system: are there some key areas in our system that drive harmful behavior in publicly owned companies? Are we using the right metrics to measure companies’ performance and the economic system as a whole? These kinds of questions help us look at the bigger picture and identify the deeper causes of problems.
The final and the most important level of explanation deals with our mental models. Our human systems are ultimately a reflection our own thinking and the prevailing mental models in our society. Systemic structures are also an outcome – an artefact of sorts – of human thinking. Observing different cultures reveals differences in mental models. Time, for example is viewed very differently in different parts of the world, which has a major impact on the way people behave and plan their lives.
Because mental models influence everything we do it is the ultimate leverage when pursuing change. Therefore, instead of over-emphasizing the significance of one time events, we should observe our thinking habits and see how they affect systemic structures and patterns of behavior.
How to use the different levels of explanation?
Here are some suggestions for using Senge’s framework:
- Next time you watch news, think about the behavior and the structures that might have caused the events being discussed.
- If you find yourself blaming someone or something for a problem in your life, try to think of ways you could have prevented it with your own behavior. What could have been done differently? Try to find a structure that might have caused any potential un-beneficial behavior.
- Observe your own thinking: can you identify strong mental models or mind-sets? If you can identify your mental models, try questioning them. Are they true? Why or why not? You can also try to think of ways your mental models are affecting your behavior.