Article 1: The Magic of Systems Thinking!

Dear all,

Hope this mail finds all of you in good spirits among all that you wish for in your life.

Some of you may know that I have been away from Singapore since 2007 being part of a programme here in Botswana where I had assisted the government learn and appreciate the five disciplines in dealing with persistent or stubborn issues that faces the nation.    These range from issues such as unemployment and budget deficits to standards of education levels to HIV/AIDs and other health scares.    The use of the five disciplines till today, continue to amaze me the ease with which the five disciplines help anyone provide clarity on why issues resist change and what causes its sustained stubbornness.

My focus and attention these days is in assisting governments in the planning of systemic development of their regional, sectoral and national strategies.    Organizational plans and programmes for departments and performance management (people) and project monitoring may be the next steps from this process.    Learning about the five disciplines is a first step in the (20-part) process of teams that work with me.

Today was one of those days when I seem to be living one of my dream days.  We may not see it when we are in it, but as I step back from the day, it fits to a tee.

I had made a visit to a media house, where I was meeting someone I had come to seek his help on reaching potential clients through the media.  He is a young person, perhaps in his early thirties.  Let me refer to him as YP here.  I am planning to expand my practice in the region and was working on the idea of running one-day programmes for the public at large here and was at the media house to explore my options in placing some adverts with them.

I am writing here the conversation as it happened as it would allow us to appreciate how as conversations go back and forth between individuals, one may appreciate a little better how talking about systems thinking can excite people but I was particularly struck by a couple of epiphanies that was happening for the both of us as a result of the conversation.

YP:  So what is that you do?

Sheila:  I do a work involving the discipline of systems thinking (immediately most minds think it is computer systems) to deal with stubborn problems.  (Immediately YP’s eyes puckered up to show he is confused.  )

Sheila:  Well, let’s think HIV/AIDs infection rates or water shortages faced by the country.  For how many years or has it decades would you say have we been trying to tackle it?

YP:  Yes, you are right.  Well, from the time they started presenting themselves in the 80s and 60s respectively.

Sheila:  How have such issues behaved over time till today?

(We both then pour over a piece of paper, where I draw the X and Y axis and while today’s situation on HIV/AIDs show a significant levels of decline from its peak in the 1990s, it has not found itself back to zero yet.  It is hovering about 15-30% rates of the population.  YP watches the graph and agrees quickly.  I then pose another question).

Sheila:  How would we draw the graph of the investments we have poured into this programme?(again we pour ourselves over the same graph and draw a graph that shows, the rate of investments have unrelented showing a steady incline over the years, that today they are surpassing levels that we have imagined was necessary.  YP’s eyes light up as he now sees what a stubborn problem means).  Sheila (continues):  Given the rate at which we have poured investments and how it has surpassed the trends for infections, we should have been successful at bringing it down .  .  .  .   by now.  Yes?

YP:  Yes.

Sheila:  And then here’s how we really tell we have a stubborn problem to start with.  Supposing the money was not there, what would the (real trend) for HIV/AIDs look like?YP (adds slowly):  It would have looked like the graph that looks like the rate we have been pouring money in to deal with it – an unrelentless increase than can quite quickly spread itself even beyond the borders of the country.

Sheila:  Yes, you are right!  That pattern that you see in front of you is a pattern caused by a vicious circle of causality that keeps pushing the trend one way, upwards and faster, like an exponential line.  That graph is a sign that whatever causes the rate of increase of infection HIV (notice I did not say the next infection) is no longer a linear or straight-line causality but the causality has now closed itself in and it is now assuming a reinforcing behaviour like a wheel that does not stop, assuming greater levels of force and speed in each iteration.  Think hurricane.  This is the battle we are fighting.  However, pouring water on the fire when we do not know what is causing the fire to keep coming back, is money down the drain.  The fire will not stop.  [The phone rings.  YP is clearly irritated by the distraction.  He answers it and returns quickly back to the discussion.  Remember he is still at work!]

YP:  Now I get it!  Wow!  My this is so exciting to see it.  (he pauses and then continues)

YP:  What about if we use this work to look at other current concerns we face in a country?  One thing that bothers me is the declining levels of standards of education we face in our public schools in the country.  Each year we see that the grades of new graduands from the system, make lower standards of education compared to earlier years (and then he adds – he now has a new language) despite as a government and as a country we had poured more money each year.  How would we use something like this to understand why that may be happening?[When he opened the new question, I felt suddenly, that I was back at my sessions, and that felt really good – despite I was well aware that I was sitting in a cubicle of one of the front desk officers in a media house.  It still was somehow befitting.  I allowed it.]

Sheila:  This story is classic to one of the laws that we hold in this work, which is the area of highest strategic leverage is one that is the least obvious.  Today, as Ministry of Education, the Minister sees teachers as a means to aid students raise their standards of education.  And teachers carry out this role diligently believing that should they pour ‘from their container’ to the ‘container of the child’, the child with enough hard work should reach their standards.  Sometimes this strategy works.  Most times it does not.  [At that point, I draw on another piece of paper a quick set of factors that distinguishes education from learning.  ]

Sheila: Education is a physical and mental process very much influenced by external factors that we can see and touch, such as the quality of the infrastructure, teachers, books, stationery and general education environment including those we set at home, all of which is a mandate a Ministry of Education can easily set for itself.  An area however that sits next to impossible and so falls easily outside the mandate of education is learning.

Learning unlike education is a purely emotional process and very personal.  [It is not a one-off process that happens when we buy a school book that we think the child needs for his education.  It is a process that is largely driven by the person himself or herself and cannot be led by an external force.  It comes from an inner drive spurred on by sense of curiosity and a hunger to want to learn something for the sake of seeking knowledge for itself (learning about something as it is) and not what it may do (how) for the owner of the knowledge.  I can learn about ‘the principle of moments’ in physics, because it will aid me in using a screwdriver to do things with less effort.  Or I can learn about ‘moments’ and be stunned by how such knowledge grew in people’s minds to be able to write it down for others to see and therefore learn from.]

Sheila (continues):  However the bedrock of that emotional development is a function of the child’s relationship with his parent.  When the child sees two things that his parent’s show,  i. e.   the parent’s behave as if they are still on a journey of learning and not they have arrived at a destination.  This experience is often a product of a person who believes in himself.  When one does not, we find having to stay on a journey becomes a restless activity, unlike the sense of comfort we have when we arrive home.  And when parents believe in themselves, it often becomes easier for the parent to believe in his child as well.  A child that sees a parent who believes in the child, often finds it easier for itself to grow to believe in itself.  When parents do not spend the time with the child, as it may be for parents that stay apart or grow a child up single-handedly, such parents will find it harder to be consistent in relaying such emotions and beliefs to his child.  Sheila (continues):  A child who does not believe in himself, will find learning for the sake of learning a difficult experience.  Learning becomes a means to another end.  Not an end in itself.  The result:  School grades decline.

Sheila (continues):  But the Ministry of Education thinks it does not have a ‘mandate or control on the above area’.  It has started on a battle (in education) that is not designed to win but to just get by.  Sheila (continues):  Parents’ emotional relationship with a child is a necessary part in nurturing the spirit of learning and it happens indirectly (hence the ‘least obvious’).  Teachers play a role as far as in furthering education but can play little beyond that in a space at trying to replace the role a parent plays in fostering the conditions needed for the spirit of learning to grow for the child.

YP:  So, that’s why MOE did not have much impact through its current programmes.  Parents are the missing key in the equation.  But, most of us in the country raise our children single-handedly and we are focus on seeing our children on a need ‘to pay school fees’ basis.  How then would we foster such beliefs?  I see this step happening as next to impossible.  What causes couples to stay separately and not grow to be together?

Well,  .  .  .   you can now guess what happened next!

We spent the next hour or so, looking at issues ranging from couples learning to grow closer, to rates of vehicle accidents on the roads, to private sector growths, to impending labour strikes, to agricultural outputs, to rainfall level behaviour, to unemployment levels, to divorces.  Both of us did not see the time pass by and literally forgot that we were right in the middle of a room that deals with front desk issues.  The learnings on the other hand were non-stop.

And then the following epiphanies began to hit the both of us!

We all know that Systems Thinking is a process of searching for what’s causing something to keep coming back at us – a search for the vicious circles of causality.  Each time as we brought ourselves through a different circle of causality, we began to realize:

  • Epiphany #1: When the practice is carried out in a consistent and disciplined way, it does something to our minds.  As we keep seeing circles unfold from the straight-line thinking, and almost like ‘magic’, we find ourselves willing to let go of whatever we are focused on or tied to (and tends to burgeon, be they levels of poverty, malnutrition, labour and political unrests, unemployment, etc.  ) to seeing ‘the bigger picture’ of what’s causing us to be bogged down.  It is an experience of zooming out.  We see the forest now and we gasp with surprise.
  • Epiphany #2: The effect of zooming out begins to also help us in the process of stretching or as we say broadening the mind.  This is more than just joining the dots or arrows or seeing the details of a circular causality.  Here’s the magic:  It is the ability of the mind to see itself zooming out of a situation.  This experience is not an ordinary experience.  It is new to the mind.  We usually drill inwards.  Not out.  It is unusual.  And when the mind sees itself zooming out, something else happens to the mind.  It learns to let go of our fears in overcoming the problems.  We begin to realize the baselessness of straight line cause-effect thinking in dealing with vicious problems and so is an overbearing focus on ‘core mandates’ or missions or goals.  We begin to see how they pay attention to a part of the circle of causality – and why such thinking would not take us far from the realities we are facing.  We begin to see how we will be led back to the problem again.  Our minds are stretched.
  • Epiphany #3: The immediate reaction to the above is, once the mind has been ‘stretched’ in this way, it does not as easily snap back to where it was before.

If these do not happen to us, then systemic thinking has not quite worked (its magic) on us as yet.  Don’t give up yet.

However, do not blame the tools of or the discipline of systems thinking or yourself for not experiencing “the magic”.  Blame the consistency of the practice of that discipline.  This is often the reason systemic thinking defies immediate replicability.   The ability to analyse comes with the willingness to be disciplined by the discipline of Systems Thinking.

Do talk about it within your communities and share your reflections with us.

Article 4: Remove self-doubt. Replace Visions.

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Under construction (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The two however, does not exist together.

It is one or the other.  But not both.

Article 5: Growing Virtuous Cycles

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Under construction (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Find the vicious cycles and turn them around.

Article 3: We are peaceful people

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Under construction (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“We are peaceful people,” because we do not talk to each other when we are feeling angry (about something or somebody).

Instead we keep it (bottled) inside within us (causing our body blood pressures and the cost of running the Ministry of Health in the country both to rise).  We do this, because, “should we not bottle it within, and let it out, then than talk through things, we are likely to end up ‘killing each other'”.

So, we keep quiet.  Therefore we are a peaceful nation.

Have you heard of this phrase before?

Well … welcome to the world of non-generative conversations!  This is the world of not understanding and learning to work with distinctions or differences that exist between us.

When we reach a certain age, we do not expect to stay in conversation.  We expect to be heard rather than hear.  Conjure images of persons watching you speak as they listen.  This bodes well in most of our minds as we reach significant positions or age.   We often relegate pictures of dialogue and being in conversations to women, young persons, inter-generational conversations, and perhaps spouses.  But not the rest of us.

Discussions, Yes.  Debates, Yes, Negotiation, Yes.

Dialogue?  No.  The buck stops there.  That’s where we draw the line.

Men and women handle anger differently.  Men seek that space to figure out by himself what he would need to do next.  Women on the other find ways to close that space so she may express her feelings about her anger to someone who is willing to hear her, so that when she sees and feels she is being heard, she allows herself to release the pain enough to free up space within her to figure what she needs to do and so then becomes clearer what to do next.

But when women handle anger the way the men does and she’s not figuring out what to do, except to shut the world out from her, we are heading right into trouble.   As a nation, there is a crisis.  A personal as well as an identity crisis.  A crisis brought on by not knowing what to do.  Men become “lost” in this too as they are not hearing from their woman what is it that he needs to do differently and why so.  As a result, both sides stay polarized in their positions.   There is stuckness.  The easy way out of such polarization is to shut out one’s world from the other.

But for a woman such an action is likely to work against her.  It leads her to stay stuck in her hole.  She possibly comes out of it, bitter as her emotions are not yet been given space and time to be heard and for her to feel she is understood by someone other than herself.  This level of emotional validation is central to her personal well-beingness [this runs contrary to work spaces that advocate for professionalism or that emotional behaviors are discouraged or even frowned upon].   She may become distracted by life, even resorting to addictive tendencies (such as drinking or smoking), but she continues to stay unresolved internally.  It is more likely to lead her to a meltdown one day or she may end up over-consuming to a point that now illnesses take over and ride out her life.  Men however deal with such situations by living out their fantasy to be able to fly, disappear and reappear and zip in and out of realities as they see fit.  They lose touch with the realities and families around them.  Women, on the other hand, behave the ways of the men, either because that’s the behaviour they see of someone with whom they feel intimate with and look upon as their leader (be they the father, brother, boyfriend or husband) or do not have another female person or mentor in guiding them in the ways of the women that are emotionally (compared to physically) distinct from men.

But do we understand such distinctions exist between men and women or even just between ourselves?  What is getting in the way of us understanding such differences?

And particularly when men do not participate in dialogue, they miss out on a whole side of the story that is not partial to their own points of view.

What about differences in the ways we view at issues?  How would we handle them?

Article 2: Setting goals is the easy part. Reaching them is not!


It is a management question.

Are you there yet?  What are you doing to get there?  Have you set goals for you and your team?

Yet, setting of goals is really the easy part.  And there are tons of research and help on how we may do so and even on how to manage the settings.  Making out a list of “Things to do today” is one such everyday activity and we are pretty good at it.

However, reaching them is another story.  And there is not as much research on why it does not happen or how it may happen for our organizations.  And not to say, much help.

It is an area that we stay quiet on.  Sometimes, even a undiscussable.


And we learn over time with experience that using charisma, meeting of heads, efforts at cascading, seeking to agree, cajole, counsel and sometimes even assuming punitive stances does not realistically make that much of a difference in reaching those goals or implementing programmes as an institution or as a nation in a sustainable way.

And we may carry out various activities to do so.  Be it implementing performance management systems, setting of directives, designing project management, re-engineering business processes, coaching, mentoring, going for corporate retreats, organizing seminars, conferences, district and village meetings and signing of memorandums, monitoring and evaluation and so on.  The list of work required to reach those goals is seemingly endless and appears necessary.  But the price we pay as a nation is heavy (including for our attorneys).

We all know this deeply; though we may not necessarily say it out aloud.  We do lead ourselves to believe they work, and yet sometimes we would rather choose to continue to lower our standards in reality to meet realistic levels of achievement over time and not understand what’s getting in the way of reaching those goals.   The former is easier.  The latter is harder.  And we are sometimes not aware that such things may be happening to us.  Often we assume the reason is the fault of the employee, or of the team manager or of the market or of the citizens or even the global recession.  And we get away by blaming “them out there”.  We get away with crime!

However, the bottom line is the ability of the organization and / or of the nation to sustain itself.

When we do not do so, it usually shows up in our balance sheets as deficits.  Eventually.  Sometimes sooner than we expect leading us to make call outs to government for bailouts, bank loans or grants and aids.  Nevertheless, we would start the same rigmarole all over again when given a second chance.


What are we not learning?

The reasons cited above are what we see on the tip.  The obvious reasons.

The ones the problems present to us if we are not careful in search for the reasons more deeply.  Those are usually not the real ones.

If you have come this far, I am sure you are not surprised by this conclusion.  The real reasons are less obvious because they have become what we call cyclical in nature or assumes a systemic quality.   Systemic because of key interrelationships (vicious circles) that have taken on a quality of recurrent influence / causality over time.

When they assume that recurrent influence, they also tend to worsen in each iteration of the cycle and therefore these cycles grows deeper and away from our everyday perceptions of reality (underlying).  These structures do also one more thing.  They typically learn to defy any efforts on our part to ‘correct’ the situation or a problem with the programmes or initiatives institutions come up with.  Therefore programme or activity implementation efforts tend to stand to fail or do not reach the goals set for them.

Identifying these vicious circles require investigation and a tactic that is very different from the straight-line approaches we are used to when dealing with them.  One that requires the mind ‘to bend’.  The causality is not that much different from one nation to another (and so much less differences exist between institutions), nevertheless, rather than leave participants with the solution, I prefer participants learn to discover the reasons jointly with each other whilst with the facilitator.  This is strategic.

In this way, the participants learn to leave the sessions carrying with them in their minds and hearts ways to continue to deepen their practice with each other over time to get to the bottom of the issue, and eventually to reach there by themselves.