Why systems change (and sometimes fail).

I know what you’re thinking. Based on the title, this should be a riveting post :). Not the most exciting topic, but when you start to look at it, understanding why (and then how) systems change is foundational to helping steer society (or any system) in a different direction.

Somebody tweeted an interesting quote the other day that got me thinking about this. “The status quo is not a point. It’s a path.” (Status Quo is also, apparently, an early 1980s rock band. I know this only because I was googling for images, and turned up about 10 pages worth of photos).

This got me thinking about why systems change, sometimes slowly and other times abruptly. Systems change because of internal discrepancy. At some point, the stated goal or intention of the system is no longer being met, and the tension that this discrepancy creates is what causes a shift or a failure. Don’t worry, I’ll highlight some examples below.

First, let’s look at me and the still-recent diabetes diagnosis. If we view the body as a system (which it is), comprised of many smaller systems (organs, neural pathways, blood vessels, muscles, etc), which are themselves comprised of even smaller systems (individual tissues and cells), we can analyze how feedback across systems plays an important role in why system’s change. Feedback is information (signals) that informs the “decision maker” as to whether the goal of the system is being met. In the case of my pancreas, which was having a harder and harder time producing enough insulin to counteract the sugar and carbohydrates that I was consuming, feedback came in the form of diabetes symptoms (thirst, frequent urination, abdominal pain).

It’s quite likely that my pancreas was failing for quite some time (perhaps years), but the “decision maker” (me), who was controlling the inputs, wasn’t attuned enough to the feedback (or it wasn’t yet loud enough). This resulted in an abrupt change (almost a system failure) to not only my pancreatic system, but to a few other systems (my diet, my relationship with food, my view of health and wellness, etc.). Had I been in tune with the feedback from my pancreas sooner, I could have adjusted the inputs and shifted the system slowly, instead of being forced to make abrupt and quite drastic changes. The discrepancy between the objective of the pancreas system (to create insulin to counteract blood sugar levels), and the ability of the system to perform that function, is what caused the broader system change.

Interestingly enough, I had a couple of options at the time of diagnosis. One of which was to inject insulin (and not change my diet), the other was to eliminate carbohydrates and sugar. I chose to overhaul the diet, figuring that injecting insulin was kind of like injecting massive quantities of money into a fundamentally flawed economy in the hopes of prolonging the inevitable. More on why our economy is fundamentally flawed in another post.

Consider some other examples of system change and failure. Take the recent economic, social and political turmoil in Greece. Unemployment rates amongst young people in Greece are almost 50%. The goal of the Greek economy and society, indeed the goal of all the world’s economic and social systems, is to create health, wealth and prosperity for its people. What happens when the feedback from the system indicates that the system isn’t working? You get internal discrepancy, and the system shifts or fails.

While we’re on the trend of economics, particularly youth unemployment, here’s a couple more interesting graphs, borrowed from this Reuter’s blog.

Youth unemployment in the US

And this one, which highlights unemployment in the Middle East in 2008 (another region of turmoil). Notice Tunisia and Egypt.

People will probably point out (rightfully so), that it’s a bit of a stretch to say that high youth unemployment causes political turmoil. That may be so, but it’s certainly correlated. More on causality and correlation another time. What’s important here is the notion of feedback, and whether the feedback is being used to make appropriate shifts to the system. When feedback about internal discrepancy is ignored by the “decision makers” who can pull the levers to make the system change, the feedback will become amplified until there is no choice between change or failure.

Had my pancreas been in charge of what we were eating, it’s unlikely that I’d now have diabetes. I’ll be writing more posts on systems, resiliency and the change process, but in the meantime…a couple of questions for you to ponder.

  1. In what systems am I a decision maker?
  2. How do I obtain and use feedback from these systems?
  3. Are there systems that I’m a part of that are experiencing a high level of internal discrepancy?


One comment

  1. An interesting reflection on “Why Systems Change” (or fail) and the correlation to your body (and mine)… and the “body” of a community… if I can extrapolate here.

    Similar to your body’s situation, my grandmother, as well as young niece, both were diagnosed with diabetes and take insulin injections. I, like you, decided to change my diet drastically (in response to increasing gastrointestinal problems). You have probably heard of the expression “I just can’t stomach this situation”, or “it makes me sick”…on a “gut level”.

    I have also chosen to cut down drastically on my intake of sugar (less than 5 g per meal or a maximum of 15 g per day is recommended), most people ingest much higher quantities than this, and white refined sugar and carbs (flour in many forms), are the worst (nutritionally, as well as in relating to diabetes and other health problems). Now my doctor is so impressed with the favorable recovery of my health, and I am feeling so much better!

    In answer to your three questions, above:

    1. I am definitely a “decision maker” in regards to my own body and physical environment “system” (health and medical decisions regarding my health and the paths I choose to improve and maintain it; my interactions with friends; the choice of and care and maintenance of my home and property; the choice of social, political and community involvement), and how much and how I chose to interact with other people, in my business and private life, as well as on a wider scale, politically and socially.

    2. I obtain feedback directly from my body and how it responds over time to what I do and eat and how I am caring for it (or failing to); from my family, friends and associates by speaking directly from them and having conversations about whatever comes up that needs to be addressed, cleared or resolved between us; and from my clients by asking directly for “feedback’ and suggestions. Socially and politically, I obtain information usually from the two local newspapers (since our Cochrane issues are seldom covered in the bigger, Regional newspapers, or in surrounding communities newspapers, and I neither buy or read them anyway). I tend to use feedback from these systems to either feel upset enough to feel motivated to answer and react back in a counteractive manner, or have little desire to read the highly biased and negative opinions of the Publisher of the Eagle and some of the columnists he supports… distancing myself from them, intellectually, politically and socially, and increasingly having little or no interest in dealing with these “social influence columnists” at all!

    3. “Are there systems that I’m a part of that are experiencing a high level of internal discrepancy?” This community of Cochrane, unfortunately. With all of the political and social infighting and back-biting, with little being accomplished and a lot of time and money wasted with “fillibustering” type actions and the Press that backs the opinions of a few outspoken people who were either not voted into any public office or who are new and lost previous votes because they were in the minority of public support.

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