I recently had the pleasure of being invited up to a gathering of 8 communities in the Dehcho region of the NWT to talk about “on the land” youth addictions treatment. I actually listened more than I talked, and came away with a new-found appreciation for both the challenges and blessings of life in the north.

Something that struck me as I prepared my presentation was the difference between being an expert and having expertise.

I believe the rise of the “expert” is something that’s actually crippling our society from making better decisions and adapting to changing circumstances. There are many, many examples available about the failure of experts to not only predict, but react appropriately, to changing circumstances. Lehman brothers, anyone? Donald Rumsfeld and the Iraq war? The collapse of the Soviet Union? All of these examples have something in common, supposed experts making decisions based on their narrow view and limited understanding of an issue, usually in a position greatly removed from the “front lines” of the situation.

Yet, despite the frequent failings of experts, society turns to them repeatedly for their sage advice. From economics to politics, war to disease…we routinely outsource decision making to people who are “specialists” in their fields. The problem with specialization is that we’re facing systemic and complex problems. These aren’t problems that are easily solved, and they don’t live within narrow fields of study.

“Expertitis” is the syndrome of assuming that you know the answer to something, because you’ve been right (or not horribly wrong) in the past. You might even have a master’s or doctorate on the subject. Regardless, you’ve stopped getting feedback, that essential piece of information in the system that tells you whether what you’re doing is working. Without feedback, you stop learning. And if you stop learning, you can’t adapt. And in evolutionary terms, if you can’t adapt….you die.

Thankfully, it’s not that adaptation is impossible. In fact, it’s how we got to where we are, and there are many great examples of adaptation to be found in the pages of history (recent and a bit further back). Apple was a computer company until it sold mp3 players. The Iraq war was all but lost in 2006 until a small group of soldiers started experimenting with a counter-insurgency campaign that went against their direct orders.

Adaptation starts with being curious about what’s really going on in the system. If you’re truly curious, you remain open to feedback. By accepting feedback you learn, and by learning you can adapt.

And adaptation has been, and will continue to be, the key to survival…whether you’re a society, government, business or person.

The status quo

Status Quo

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to actually move systems in the direction that we want them to go. I’ve written previously about things like transit in Cochrane, so I’ll use that as an example.

First off, the diagram above shows my thinking around the “status quo”. Too often we think of it as a point in time, instead of the path through time that it really is. What we’ll have tomorrow is more of today, unless we do something different. Pretty straightforward.

I think what often stops those game-changing paradigm shifts in society is the sheer magnitude of the change, the large gap between the “status quo” and the “?” in the above diagram. But what if we didn’t have to make that huge leap tomorrow? What if instead we shifted in a smaller, more manageable way?

Take, for example, the proposed expansion of the Spray Lakes Family Leisure Centre here in Cochrane. Recently Town Council was presented with some initial reports that suggested a 54 million dollar price tag for a new pool and curling rink. I’ll save the obvious thoughts around “why we need more sheets of ice where people can chase rocks around and drink beer instead of just about any other project I can think of” for some other blog post.

Proposed rec center expansion

What caught my attention was the need to potentially construct up to one thousand more parking stalls to accomodate these new facilities. 1000 parking stalls.

Here’s a thought. Build a parkade on the Quarry (the old domtar site). Make it free parking. Charge a couple of bucks for parking at the leisure center. Run a free shuttle bus every 20 minutes back and forth from the Quarry to the leisure center.

What would that accomplish? First of all, we’d save some serious space down at the leisure center for things like grass (always nice to have) and further expansion of the facility. Second, all the merchants on the Quarry site would see a significant boost in traffic. Who wouldn’t grab a quart of milk and eggs at Sobey’s after running at the track? Or a coffee before they head down to watch the game? Third, it would be a great dip of the toe into the transit market. Try it for a year or two. Not working? Go ahead and build another thousand parking stalls.

Who knows, it might be the sort of small shift that leads to something altogether different than the “pave paradise, put up a parking lot” path we seem to be on.

Structured (dys)Function

Do you remember H1N1? In 2009/10 it caused 17,000 deaths across the world. Vaccines were rushed to market and inoculations en-masse took place. And at my place of employment we instituted a standing agenda item called the “Health Minute” at our twice-monthly leadership meetings.

Despite H1N1 petering out, the “Health Minute” persisted. It was a chance to go around the table and tell the other folks (supervisors, managers and executives) how healthy your team was. Needless to say, it quickly became redundant (given the absence of a pandemic), yet managed to persist as a standing agenda item for nearly 4 years (despite some minor grumblings that I’d throw out every now and again to revisit the usefulness of said agenda item).

What’s this all about? I think it’s a fundamental mis-alignment between function and structure.

Function is about performing a task or solving a problem. Pretend that you have a river to cross. How many different ways can you get across? Swim? Buy a boat? Build a bridge? All different structures, or mechanisms to perform the function of crossing the river. Swimming is the cheapest, building a bridge the most expensive. Depending on your needs (now and in the future), you may chose one or the other.

What we often stop doing is assessing our structures to see if they still function effectively in solving our problems or performing our tasks. Much like the “Health Minute”, a lot of our institutions mistakenly embrace structures AS IF they will naturally continue to function as they historically have, despite changes in the context of the very problem.

On Saturday, I’m running an “unworkshop” at ConnectEd, a gathering of teachers at the Calgary Science School. We’re going to be talking about changing systems, and probably a lot about function and structure.

Here’s one of my favorite TED talks from Sir Ken Robinson, about the structures of education and how they no longer function the way we need them to.

I encourage you to take a few minutes and think about the structures that you’ve built in your life, and what the function of those structures ought to be. Anything mismatched? Any “Health Minutes” in your life? Structures that have developed to function in a context that no longer exists? Do you find yourself doing something out of habit, but it no longer serves the same purpose it once did? If so, it might be time to do a little renovating.

You’ll be happy to know that the “Health Minute” will soon be gone. Until the next pandemic, of course.

The problem that isn’t.

At a recent teacher’s conference in Edmonton I asked some workshop attendees if addiction is a problem. Everyone in the room nodded and raised their hands.

If I asked you “is climate change a problem?” or “is deforestation, overfishing, water pollution and habitat loss a problem?”, I’m betting that there would be a collective raising of hands and nodding.

Unfortunately, we’re all wrong. Addiction is not a problem, and neither is climate change. Both of those phenomena are symptoms of a solution to other problems.

Take climate change. Scientific consensus points to the burning of carbon based fuels as the primary driver of the greenhouse affect, which induces global climate change. Why do we burn fuels? To transport ourselves and goods, heat our homes and our water, create electricity, etc. When I have the problem of needing to get somewhere, I start the truck and drive there. Problem solved. When the house is chilly and the furnace kicks on, problem solved. When I feel the need to blog about something, on goes the computer. Problem solved.

As long as we’re looking at symptoms as if they’re problems in their own right, we’re limiting both the discussion on how to solve them, and the tools at our disposal. So long as there’s no real incentive for me to upgrade my 32 year old furnace, it’s likely going to keep chugging away, keeping my house pleasantly warm through the depths of winter. Of course, if my problem suddenly became very expensive natural gas…you can bet that I’ll do something about it. We’re hardwired to solve our individual problems, not so inclined to make sacrifices for the broader good. Which isn’t to say that we’re not capable of doing so, just that we don’t often.

If I’ve learned anything from my work with addicts over the years, it’s that change IS possible. It’s just really hard. And if we don’t address the underlying issue driving the addiction (or climate change, et al), we don’t really have a snowball’s chance in hell of solving it.

The first step in an addict’s journey to recovery? Figuring out what the real problem is.

I’ve been getting some requests to run a webinar on change, addiction and system’s thinking. Interested? Follow the link and let me know what day/time works best. If I get enough interest we’ll make something happen. 

The Resilient System: Feedback

Last week I wrote about Diversity vs. Efficiency, and how often in our systems we’re sacrificing the former for the latter. This week I’m going to get into Feedback a little bit.

Not the dreaded “sit down with the boss every year and chat about your annual review” kind of feedback. The kind of feedback that drives systems, both little and huge.

First though, two kinds of Feedback:

Positive Feedback: Encourages the system to “do it again”. From rave reviews at the concert hall that sparks a 2nd run of the same play, to diner’s consistently ordering the same dish at the local restaurant, positive feedback is what propels systems forward (usually quite rapidly). Positive feedback often encourages the system to use up resources (think of shareholders getting high returns from companies that cut down rainforests… the positive feedback encourages more investment, which results in more logging, which results in higher profits, which results in more investment…).

Negative Feedback: Places limits on the system, and is essential for long term system stability. It’s the wolf or coyote that keeps the rabbit population in check. It’s the group of book publishers that only buys recycled paper, instead of virgin wood. It’s the ability of the planet to absorb the carbon we emit.

Typically, positive feedback loops are much faster than negative feedback loops. Often, these positive loops will lead to runaway growth within a system, until the negative feedback loops of the system catch up (or the system uses up all the resources and crashes…also a form of negative feedback. A recent financial crisis come to mind…lot’s of little positive feedback loops at work there, creating a runaway system.)

The most important thing about feedback is that it exists, and we need to listen to it. First we need to figure out what the heck we’re measuring, and whether that’s the right “thing” that measures the stability and sustainability of the system. Thinking back to the cod fishery example from the previous post, it becomes pretty apparent that the positive feedback that was being measured didn’t indicate the resiliency of the system.

How do you know what’s going on in your system (business, classroom, community, etc.)? What do you measure? Why do you measure it? Is it positive feedback or negative?

The Resilient System: Diversity

As part of my focus on helping create a more resilient world, I’m going to be writing a series of blog posts on what I think are components of resilient systems.

The first topic is Diversity. For a system to be resilient, it needs to have resources distributed in such a way that they can be re-allocated to solving new problems as they appear, or dealing with challenges in multiple ways.  One of the main opponents of system diversity is efficiency.  There might be a conflict of interest here.

Since perhaps the dawn of mankind (but certainly the industrial revolution), we’ve been on a shared quest to increase the efficiency of our systems. From food production to education, manufacturing and transportation, we’ve been on a mission to do “more with less”. And that’s been great, and it’s led to all kinds of innovation and savings in energy, time and money. Heck, the very fact that you’re reading this on the internet (and not in a book 6-months from now) is the result of increases in communication efficiency. But the dark side to all of this efficiency is rigidity.

Called the “Rigidity Trap”, systems that are highly efficient are also highly prone to failure when confronted with crisis. One look at the cod fishery collapse in Atlantic Canada shows a system that evolved from being very diverse (lot’s of little fishing boats and owner/operators pre 1950s, using traditional fishing methods) to being highly efficient (giant trawlers with enormous haul nets and onboard cleaning and freezing facilities). The annual catch went up from 250,000 tons in the 1950s to 800,000 tons in 1968. This increase in efficiency led the system into a rigidity trap, where fisherman HAD to keep pursuing larger and larger catches, to justify the mortgages on very expensive and efficient boats. The federal government didn’t step in until 1992, at which point 42,000 people were put out of work when the fishery was closed. For over 400 years the northern Atlantic cod fishery had been one of the richest in the world, and in a few short decades of ever-increasing efficiency, was decimated.

Of course, we can look at diversity at a broad range of scales. How diverse is your personal thinking? Do you visit the same websites, read the same newspaper columnists, listen to the same radio talk shows? Do you only read things at

The next blog post will be on Feedback, as it’s the critical element that informs the system on what’s working and what’s not. From the examples above, if we only get feedback from sources that support our worldview, I think we’re in danger of developing our own “rigidity traps”.

A few things to ponder in your own systems (at whatever scale you have influence on).

  1. Are we sacrificing diversity for efficiency? And what are the consequences if our efficient system becomes so rigid that it can’t handle change, and collapses? Will 42,000 people be put out of work and an ecosystem destroyed?
  2. Do we have redundancy built into the system? Are we willing to sacrifice a bit of efficiency to ensure the system can survive crisis? (An example from my own life is heating my house. I have a traditional furnace and a wood stove. Redundant systems that perform the same task, a little less efficient, but more resilient. Same idea with the truck that runs on diesel and vegetable oil.)

You have to start somewhere…

A beautiful double rainbow gives pause for reflection.

…so why not start at the beginning? My journey into a systems-thinking approach to life started in 2004. I was most of the way through an undergraduate degree (Ecotourism and Outdoor Leadership) at Mt. Royal University, and helped plan and participate in a month-long paddling expedition on the Athabasca River (the longest undammed river in the province at 1230km).

Designed as a learning expedition, the objective was to get a first hand look at what was really going on, above and below the surface of this heritage waterway, and to communicate this knowledge to the broader public. To that end, we planned numerous stops along the way, including a festival in the town of Athabasca at the halfway mark (complete with live country music and native hoop dancing!). The trip up to this point had been full of incredible experiences. From wildlife encounters (bears, wolves, eagles, elk, deer), to encounters of the human kind (hitchiking into Hinton in the pouring rain, walking into Tim Horton’s in wetsuits and PFD’s, having the server exclaim “you’re those guys from the radio!” was quite the highlight), the trip had been an adventure of grand proportions. 

Unfortunately this blog post isn’t for telling the story of this trip, but of one peak moment that occurred near the end. A moment that has forever altered my perspective on environmentalism, sustainability and society.

We had just finished paddling through the Athabasca Oil Sands, a journey that took an entire day (we were averaging about 50km/day at that point). Needless to say, us 5 young college students (and one of our Mom’s!) were feeling pretty down and out. The scale of environmental impact was beyond anything we had ever seen or imagined. After 21 days of basically wilderness paddling, entering an industrial complex was a shock to the system. You could smell the diesel in the air from the giant trucks. Heck, you could smell the bitumen. Bird cannons were going off on a regular interval. It really felt like another planet. We were horrified and dismayed.

Not as horrified and dismayed mind you, as when the conversation that evening turned to the reality of what we had seen. With one look at our plastic canoes, plastic paddles, gore-tex jackets, gas-burning stoves and innumerable other plastic “conveniences”, we had the simultaneous realization that we were the problem. Yikes, talk about a reality check. Of course we’re the problem. Suncor and Syncrude weren’t digging that oil out because they thought it would be a nice thing to do. They were selling it, and we were buying it. Faster than they could get it out of the ground and into the pipeline. And for the first time, I really understood that. In a much more than academic sense, I felt it.

The interesting part of this story is where and how this realization came about. It was not in the classroom. It was not at the coffee shop. It was not during one of the many conversations we had engaged in about the oil sands, prior to actually experiencing the oil sands. I’ll be writing a lot about experiential learning, and its role in the change and transformation process. That trip, and the experience of the oil sands, has changed the course of my life and guided many later decisions.

Could I have come to the realization that I did on that trip without viscerally experiencing first-hand the impacts of my action on the land? Maybe. Would I have felt the realization in my gut? Pretty unlikely. Would I be blogging about it? Nope.

Food for thought…when was the last time you felt connected to the land? Where were you? What were you doing?