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Shifting self to shift systems

Updated: Oct 3, 2022

Words by Victor Odhiambo: 2020 METIS Fellow, Co-Founder and Executive Director -Garden of Hope Foundation.

Three weeks ago, I had a conversation with a friend who has been job searching for some time. My friend has experience working in the community through various organizations. Most of the friends he grew up with are currently leading non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) and community-based organizations (CBOs) in the community where he grew up. He seemed very frustrated with the fact his friends could not offer him a job, and yet according to him, they could.

One day he called to ask about tips on starting and running an organization. After 10 minutes conversation, I asked him why he wanted to start an organization in the same community where there are over 1,000 organizations serving about 250,000 people bearing in mind that the population might go down drastically in the next 5-10 years, considering that people are moving out because of the current government developments of road and other infrastructures.

My friend believed that by starting his own organization he would be able to solve some of the challenges that have existed in the community for over 20 years, he would also start getting some funds immediately among other reasons. While he believed that he had great reasons as to why he wanted to start his own organization, I was not convinced.

The existing organizations in my community have been operating on a specific system (which is unhealthy) for a long time and unfortunately the organizations are started with the wrong mental model. Instead of focusing to change the situation, we focus on amplifying the problems, exaggerating data based on our bias. Additionally, lack of strategic partnerships makes the situation worse.

Most people believe that the answer to these challenges is to start new organizations using the same reasons, the same approach, and the same pattern. Don’t get me wrong, the reasons could be noble, but I believe we must strongly work on our mental models to change systems.

Mental models are deeply ingrained or held pictures (images, assumptions, generalizations or abstractions based on data) that each of us hold in our mind that influences how we understand the world, our work, our families, and how we take action.

Very often, we are not consciously aware of our mental models or the effects they have on our behavior, particularly in limiting us to familiar ways of thinking. That is why, the discipline of managing mental models – surfacing, testing and improving our internal pictures of how the world works – promises to be a major breakthrough for building learning organizations.

The parable of the blind men and the elephant where each blind man feels a different part of the elephant's body, but only one part, such as the side or the tusk. They then describe the elephant based on their limited experience and their descriptions of the elephant are different from each other, illustrates how our individual perceptions (what Peter Senge calls our “mental models”) can lead to assumptions about the system as a whole.

While you believe that that the key to keeping students in school is by providing free meals, paying school fees, providing free menstrual products among other interventions, it’s also important not to forget that these interventions could be because of our assumptions hence we respond by treating the symptoms rather than the actual disease.

Systems thinking often involves moving from observing events or data, to identifying patterns together of behavior overtime, to surfacing the underlying structures that drive those events and patterns. By understanding and changing structures that are not serving us well (including our mental models and perceptions), we can expand the choices available to us and create more satisfying, long-term solutions to chronic problems. A system thinking perspective requires curiosity, clarity, compassion, choice and courage. Changing systems takes a long time.

Systems thinking requires a shift in mindset, away from linear to circular. The fundamental principle of this shift is that everything is interconnected. Systems thinking also requires us to work as a whole, rather than individuals. With collective voices we have more power, and the gatekeepers can listen. It also requires us to map key (if not all) stakeholders before we start responding to the challenges. Mapping stakeholders can open doors for possible partnerships and new insights.

The next time you think of solving a local, national, or global chronic problem, check your mental model and consider a systems approach.

References : The practice of adaptive leadership by Alexander Grashow, Marty Linky and Ronald Heifetz : Tools of systems mapping

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