2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 2,100 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 4 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

Newspaper Column #10: Why do some problems defy, no, NOT change? – Part II

As it appeared in the Sunday Standard, Botswana on  Sunday Dec 23, 2012 edition.

Seeing the Trees and the Forest

If the problem is solved, it should not come back.  Period!  We would be seeing results.

If it recurs, then this is a sign that we have not solved it.  Yet.  Period!

Last week, we ran a story of the occurrence (an event) of 9/11, and then we learned it was actually a re-ocurrence (pattern) of an issue that has now become persistent or as we say, stubborn.  The event was not meant to be one-off.

Of course, we know that now.

The more one ‘did this’, the more the other ‘did that back’, which in turn led one to ‘do this’ and so on (see figure).  Similar stories run between the eastern and the western worlds.  Between locals and foreigners, between husband and wife, families, neighbours, communities, organizations, nations, between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law, and so on.  You can substitute A and B for any of the above, and it will explain its recurrence.  Try it.

Reinforcing Loop

The purpose of the recurrences is to point to the need to learn of another way to solve stubborn problems.  We learn these by watching its behaviour over time, even before our lifetimes.

Characteristics of vicious cycles

Firstly, the more the cycle runs viciously, the more it becomes expensive.  Think the 2008 economic global recession.  Some would say, we are still feeling its effects, today in 2012.

In circular causality there is NO starting or ending points.  The root cause has a cause.  I know this defies everything we have learned.  This reasoning is important as it will help us appreciate that the starting point is not in any one part of the cycle.

For example, the thinking rainfall causes vegetation is part true.  It is part true, because, vegetation too in turn causes rainfall.  This can also mean we cannot get away by saying that the developed countries have ‘caused’ global warming.  Their TVs and phones are in our homes.  If we did not demand for them, they would not have been producing it.

But unlike a wheel that retards on friction, this one gathers its strength with each iteration of the cycle.  It grows stronger.

The land appears drier.  More youths walk on the streets for jobs.  More adults succumb to HIV.  School grades continue to decline.  Couples divorce.  Addictions increase.  Crime and corruption increases.  And so on.  It is now behaving like a bullet that has just been released from its gun.  It continues to stay on its course and resist our efforts to change it until we are able to see and learn to work with the cycle as a whole.

Yet, separately, both sides would find it difficult to see the interwoven and vicious nature of this circle of causality between the two.

It was obviously difficult for ‘Bush and Bin Laden’ to sit side-by-side with each other, to see for themselves this non-stopping (and vicious) nature of this cycle that keeps all of us in a spin.  It is still difficult today.  It happens to the best of us.  Often, we become too busy either looking out at ourselves or at the other party.  Yet, till we do so, the issue remains unresolved.

Ten years on, from 2011, we now know that this is true.  How about ten years from today?

Lastly, the trick is not about working at it harder.  We have done so exactly that since biblical times.  Having said so, it will be difficult to appreciate this failure, in just seeing our lifetime of experiences.

The solution

But if this circle of causality is the real culprit, then blaming any one side of it will really not solve the problem.  While we could blame the people or government or a sector separately for our woes, we really do so because it is the easier way out.  It is easy because it is the part of the circle of causality that is obvious to us.  We are usually oblivious to the rest of the the circle of causality.

Blaming is therefore not a solution.

Can vicious cycles of causality turn around by itself?  No!

It is like a wheel that has been set into motion.  Like a bullet released from the gun.  It does not reverse its course on its own.

To solve it, first the circle needs to become more obvious to our perceptions.

The solution to this interwoven complexity then lies in working with the interwoven nature of the problem as a whole.  Not directly at the problem per se or parts of the causality.

How do we do then treat these vicious cycles?

Here’s a story to illustrate how this may be done.  This is Part I.  Part II will be presented in the next insert.

The title of the story is, “The Healing Poison”.

A Story

This daughter-in-law (DIL) finds herself in a difficult relationship with her mother-in-law (MIL) (see figure)!

She (DIL) had done everything possible to try and bridge the gap between the two, except the more she tried, the worse their relationship seems to become.  She has now arrived at a point where she has concluded that “The problem is mother-in-law (MIL).  So, if I wish to get rid of the problem, then all I have to do is to get rid of mother-in-law”.

Except, it was not easy, to get rid of MIL.  The more she tried, the more she worried that somebody might suspect it was her.  One afternoon at wits end, as she sat down to rest, she suddenly thought of her favourite uncle.  Someone, whom as she grew up took care of her problems for her and she gas come to respect him for his wisdom.  She decided, she should pay him a visit the very next day to seek help to her current problem.

The uncle was delighted to see her.  As they settled down, she starts talking.  “What is happening?” asks the uncle.  The DIL spills her beans.  So when the uncle asks, “What do you want to do?”, she shares that she’s arrived at this conclusion that should we get rid of the MIL, the problem will be solved!  The uncles probes and asks, so “What do you want me to do about this?”  She quips, “I would like you to help me get rid of MIL!”

“I see.  Wait here”, says the uncle.

A few minutes later, he pops back and this time, he is holding a small bottle with some liquid inside.  He then adds, “Here’s what you need to do.  Every day, drop two drops of this liquid, in a hot cup of milk.  Present the cup of milk to her, one for every night for the next six months, and make sure that she drinks it.”

“Well, that’s easy.  Is there anything else I have to do?”, asks the DIL.

“Yes, there is one more thing you have to do.”  “What is that?” she asks.

“Well,” adds the uncle.  “Every night, when you present the milk to your MIL, you must make sure that you smile.  Because if you do not, somebody might suspect it was you.”

Hmm …. that’s going to be tough.  To smile.  “Are you sure she will be gone, at the end of six months?”  “Yes!”, assured the uncle.” “Well, in that case, I shall do it!”

On that note, the uncle hands the bottle to her and wishes her well.  As the DIL turns quickly to walk back home, you could almost detect a twinkle in the uncle’s eye and a smile on his lips!

Could the uncle see the circle of causality between the two?  Does he see the trees and the forest at the same time?  How about the DIL?  The MIL?  How do you think the story would end?

These will be the subject of discussion of this column in the new year.  Happy discovering and learning with your family and friends over the holidays!

Merry Christmas and of course, wishing you ahead, may everything you wish for, become real for you in the New Year!

Ms Sheila Damodaran, an international strategy development consultant for national planning commissions, welcomes comments at sheila@loatwork.com.  For upcoming programmes, refer to www.loatwork.com/Senior_Leadership_Introduction.html.

Newspaper Column #9: Why do some problems defy, no, NOT change? – Part I

As it appeared in the Sunday Standard, Botswana on  Sunday Dec 16, 2012 edition.

Dynamic Complexity vs. Detail Complexity

We face problems daily.  And, we do not doubt our ability to deal with them.

Sometimes, this confidence can pull wool over our heads that we can deal even with the stubborn ones, in much the same way.  We would say to ourselves, just work harder.  We will overcome it.

Stubborn problems are issues that despite efforts to manage or contain it, while it first they may look like they are relenting, the results are short-lived (two-to-three years).  And, then it comes back again, this time harder and faster.

For example, in our efforts to survive arid conditions, we engage in pastoral farming.  Except, over time, such practices wipe out the greens (as when livestock consume grass) that would otherwise encourage rainfall.  In some countries, this means it gets only summer rainfall.  This causes conditions to become arid even further.

Notice, however, when droughts strike, they wipe out the livestock numbers.  This is an attempt by the system to do a correction, so as to recover itself.  The correction by the system is usually not that visible to us.  We now have a stubborn problem in our hands.

Can you tell, who comes across as more stubborn?

Can you tell, who comes across as more stubborn?

I am sure you can think of lots of other examples of stubborn problems.  Economic growth declines.  Lack of wage increases.  Divorce rates.  Rainfall levels and/or water tables (Nov/Dec 2012 series of this column).  New HIV/AIDs infection (coming in Jan 2013).  Unemployment (October 2012 series).  National school grades.  Performance in agriculture, manufacturing and retail sectors.  Economic diversification.  Crime.  Obesity.  Diabetes.  Road accidents.  Poaching.  Budget deficits.  Wars.  These are some, among others.

Firstly, the stubborn nature in such issues is usually not that easily visible at the onset, till we have had to face them for years on end, sometimes even decades.  It escapes our attention even for the best of us when tasked to manage them for the short-term (three-to-five years).

As legislatures, managers and enforcers we believe in the power of our word or our hands and feet to make a difference to such problems.  We become effective at doling out corrections each time the problem surfaces.

And when we fail to do so, it looks like project implementation is not taking off or the officer or the function is not performing well.  The enemy is out there.  Or, we may sometimes, shrug them off as ‘things that are beyond our borders and therefore our control’.

Where such problems exist, managing one time occurrences are easy.  Recurrence makes them tough.

Two kinds

However, to understand why such problems resist change, we need to first understand what causes their persistence.  To do so, it helps to appreciate that there are two kinds of complexity.  Detail and dynamic complexity.

Most organizations (and professions) are designed to deal with the first kind.  Detail complexity.  As it would be, when one “drills down”.  How many baskets did we sell last month?  What was our profit this year?  How many permits did we issue?  How many crimes were committed?

We are not quite organized to deal with the second.  What causes sales or profits to keep falling?  Or why does crime keep rising?

But first, what does the word complexity mean here?  The dictionary says “it consists of related parts” (as in composites) or “complicated” (as in a complex problem).

But it is perhaps the Latin word “complexus” from which this word derives its meaning that sets it apart for us.  It says “embracing, interwoven”.

To see the interwoven nature of a problem, it would require our minds to “zoom out” from the problem.  However, our years of drilling our minds down to details, makes the experience of letting go of the problem to see its dynamic nature, a new and rather anxious one for many of us.  It is understandable.

However, when we do not see the interwoven nature of these issues, it makes some of the most persistent issues of the day, well … remain stubborn.   Yet the solutions to some of our most pressing issues lie in learning to see and work with this interwoven nature.  There is no easy way out.  No shortcuts.  No magic pill.  Unfortunately.

First, let’s see what the interwoven nature of a problem would look like.

Interwoven nature of reality

We shall use an example.

Let’s go back to 2001.  9/11: The day when the two planes hit the World Trade Centre.  Notice what happened.  Overnight, airports around the world responded in exactly the same way.  First stunned.  And then a mad scramble to ‘shore its security’.  Yes?

Overnight, we saw passengers snake their way over two-hour waits to security screens.  No belt, shoe or stone were left unturned.  Do you remember those days?

One passenger underwent several levels of security screenings.  A typical airport would have thousands of passengers passing through its doors in a single day.  In a month or in a year, we would say well, that was a lot of work!

What would you call that kind of complexity?  This is what we refer to as ‘Detail Complexity’.

Most professions and performance management systems have their focus on this.

Systemic Thinking on the other hand, focusses its attention on ‘Dynamic Complexity’.

Let’s go back to the same context.

To find the dynamic complexity we start by asking, ‘why did we do what we did’?  Why did we build those screens?

Well we say it was important to do that so as to ‘weed the terrorists out’.

Yet, should we go across to “the enemy”, and ask the question, “From your view, who would you say, is the terrorist?”  What do you think would be their answer?  Did somebody whisper, “The other side”.  You bet!

So what do you notice?

Can you see what causes its recurrence?  Some might add, the recurrence has been happening since biblical times.  If so, will doing ‘corrections’ by one side acting on the other’ ever put a stop to the other side doing its corrections to us?   We know, that will not stop the problem.  And continuing to fight ‘the other side’, becomes very expensive.

But notice this dynamic complexity view becomes clearer to see when we zoom away from the bustle of managing the activities at the airports.

Why is it important to see this inter-relationship?  How then, do we handle such problems?  How do we handle Dynamic Complexities?

This will be the subject of the 2nd part of this article.

Ms Sheila Damodaran, an international strategy development consultant for national planning commissions welcomes comments at sheila@loatwork.com.  For upcoming programmes, refer to www.loatwork.com/Senior_Leadership_Introduction.html.

Newspaper Column #8: Have Greens, Will Rain! – Part V

As it appeared in the Sunday Standard, Botswana on  Sunday Dec 9, 2012 edition.

Actions have consequences

When we bring a bowser to a place that needs water, is that a solution to, or a relief from the problem?

The test will be, if that’s the only time we have had to do it.  Then it is a solution.  Otherwise, it is a measure to stop the gap.  But the gap remains there.

To take care of recurrent (persistent) nature of water shortages of a nation, we would have to take care of the water cycle.  The whole cycle.  Not parts of it (as excerpted from Part IV of this series).

Except the truth is, most of us and organizations, be they units, departments, sometimes even whole Ministries are not designed to do so.  We work at best in parts.  And, as citizens, we have not mandated anyone to do so, otherwise.  Not as yet.

This allows stubborn problems to slip away from our focus, but they return to haunt us (you and I) more deeply each year.  It is a reminder of work to be done as yet.

The water cycle is one example of circles of causality, we have been ignoring for decades.  There are many more.

Nature of cycles

The cycle can go two ways (see Picture 1).


They could either reinforce positively or negatively.  When the cycle reinforces positively, we would see the world around us look more like the Amazons.  When the same cycle reinforces the other way, we would see the Sahara unfold right in front of our eyes.  The outcomes may be different.  But the circular causality is the same.  The difference is in knowing which way the cycle is reinforcing for us?

Causes of reality

In the last article, I left a question:  What are the consequences of the following actions on the water cycle?  Run a test against the cycle.  (see Table 1)

Table 1: What are the impacts over time of the following actions on the water cycle?

Action Plan Given and constraints Consequence Impact
Growing drought-resistant varieties of crops? Given there are already large-scale existence of drought-resistant plants that we grow in our gardens, and as vegetation and forests on the land. Persistent growth of such varieties cause persistent reduction of transpiration by plants and therefore the atmospheric moisture in the region Negative.  Would see reduced levels of rainfall and water tables over time
Producing livestock that depend on greens? When number of livestock exceeds carrying capacity of the land, it leads animals (including wildlife) to consume greens at rates faster than at which they may rejuvenate. Sees wipe outs of greens and humus in the topsoil needed to see sustained growth of vegetation leading to non-sustainable levels of transpiration. Negative.  Would see reduced levels of rainfall and water table over time
Production of brews? It can take up to ten cans of water to produce one can of beer.   When the consumption of water exceeds the water table recharge levels, it causes the distance between the topsoil and the water table to increase. Sees wipe outs of greens and humus in the topsoil needed to see sustained growth of vegetation.  The land appears drier, leading to non-sustainable levels of transpiration. Negative.  Would see reduced levels of rainfall and water table over time
Drilling or deepening of boreholes? When the rate of extraction of water table exceeds recharge levels, it causes the gaps between topsoil and the water table to increase. Sees wipe outs of greens and humus in the topsoil needed to see sustained growth of vegetation.  The land appears drier, leading to non-sustainable levels of transpiration. Negative.  Would see reduced levels of rainfall and water table over time
Presence of dams? One dam-full of water could see up to two-thirds of its water evaporate from its surfaces. The rate of evaporation is too fast unlike the more organic pace of transpiration by plants.  The land appears drier, leading to non- sustainable levels of transpiration. Negative.  Would see reduced levels of rainfall and water table over time

What do you notice?  While our actions were intended to be a response to declining water tables, continuing to take these actions, actually deepens the decline even further!

And as we do so, rainfall levels pushes downwards further.  On the surface, it would look like as if public and private sector initiatives and project implementation efforts are not taking off (see Table 2).

Table 2: What are the consequences (from over 20, 30, 40 year periods ago) of a negatively reinforcing water cycle on the following?

Growing of crops and raw materials (primary industries)  Negative
Food security  Negative
Sustained growth of secondary industries  Negative
Sustained growth of tertiary industries  Negative
Capacity to diversify and develop a manufacturing base  Negative
Competitiveness / Growth of profit margins of retail sector organizations  Negative
Growth of tax revenues from agriculture, manufacturing &  retail sectors  Negative
Growth of wages  Negative
Growth of employment in the formal sectors  Negative
Growth of household incomes  Negative

The reality is not merely at the mercy of the terrains we live in.  They are also the consequences of our actions.

What is happening?

While these cycles are natural systems, they are leading us (yes, even the humans within the system) to take decisions, that reinforce the direction the cycle is already heading into.  It is the self-seeking nature of the cycle that causes that to us.

Unknown to us, our thinking is now becoming set within these cycles.  It happens to the best of us.

It is easy to blame organizations out there.  It is harder to blame our thinking here.  Systemic Thinking offers a way to catch ourselves being trapped in such thinking.

So, should we take off from the next corporate retreat with a solution that we come up with, or would we need to first uncover together the circle of causality that keeps returning these problems to us?

You are right!  We need to be mindful of the latter.

What would we need to do, to solve the problem of water shortages then?  The clue is in the circle of causality (see Picture 2).


Take another look at the cycle the parts before “Level of Rainfall” (bottom right corner).  What do you see is leading up to it?  Does it say “Level of vegetation and (top right corner) and further up in the cycle, “levels of surface and underground moisture”?

That becomes a systemic solution.  “Have more greens, will rain more”.

This is the final segment of this five part series of this article.   In the New Year, we will work on understanding the persistent nature of HIV, its causes and its effects and how we may turn it around.

Ms Sheila Damodaran, an international strategy development consultant for national planning commissions welcomes comments at sheila@loatwork.com.  For upcoming programmes, refer to www.loatwork.com/Senior_Leadership_Introduction.html.

Newspaper Column #7: Have Greens, Will Rain! – Part IV

As it appeared in the Sunday Standard, Botswana on  Sunday December 2, 2012 edition.

All is not what it seems

So was your answer similar to or different from that of your friends?

In last week’s discussion (Part III) we saw gradual increases in rainfall levels rose levels of vegetation as well.   Vegetation begins to grow in sustained ways.

Still, this is linear thinking.  Rainfalls cause vegetation.  As farmers, most of us know this.

However, the key to understanding persistent or stubborn issues such as water shortages is when we see causality as a cycle (Part II).  At this point, the thinking shifts from linear to being systemic.

So, I left you with a question to complete the process of thinking.

Should levels of vegetation (along with surface waters) increase, what do you think will be their consequence on rainfall levels?

Would we see declining levels of rainfall? Or could such levels increase (gradually) over time?  Which types of vegetation would encourage rainfalls?  And which ones don’t?

Check if you got the following answer.  I am sure you did!

This is a story over time.

As more plants consume water and we see vegetation grow over time, we will begin to see a genre of plants that are broadleaved.  As more of such plants thrive on the lands, such plants transpire water vapour into the atmosphere.

The more persistent are those levels, the higher the likelihood of levels of atmospheric moisture rising across the region.  However, one plant, one hose-pipe or one dam does not make that change happen.  Instead one would have to imagine, miles and miles of such vegetation happening across the region.


What do you think will be the result?

The higher atmospheric moisture now begins to encourage precipitation and eventually rainfall.  Hence my title here, “have greens will rain”.

Positive Cycle

For rains to fall from above, it needs to figure a way to move from the earth’s surface to the atmosphere.  Surface waters and vegetation when they come together facilitates that process.  We as humans are parts of that instrument.  The result will be more levels of rainfall over time.

Additionally, as more plants grow out their life cycle, at the end of their life, they decompose and add nutrients to the earth.  This is key in helping the soil transform gradually from sandy to become loamy.  The land learns to become greener.  Potentially, we could even see the desert turn on its back.

As the supply of available water increases, cost of using it, will usually come down.  The reverse (Part I) is also true.  When the supply diminishes, the cost goes up.  Unfortunately, we will not be able to push these prices down, till we figure a way to increase its supply.  The answer can start in our backyards.  Literally, for everyone.

So, increased levels of vegetation, raises the levels of rainfall.  That’s your cycle (see Picture 2)!  In this case we refer to them as virtuous cycles.


The reverse is also true.

Negative Cycle

When plants do not consume water (see also Picture 2), over time, they gradually learn to do the opposite of all of the above, as they fight or adapt to stay alive.

These adaptations may include developing layers of wax or hairs on the leaves and stems or shrinking the size of its leaves to become thorns.  This is intended to prevent water losses so as to keep the water for themselves. This runs contrary to the nature of water, which is to flow.  These plants have adapted the inherent nature of water for its survival.  It does so at the expense of the system (or we say it has become individualistic).

The ultimate drought-resistant plant is cactus that grows in the hearts of most deserts of the world.  Think what you see when you crack a cactus open.  We see trapped water.  The little water it takes in, it keeps it for itself.

When they begin to appear in our environment, it suggests that the soil on the surface has long lost its ability (to build loamy soil) to support sustained vegetation.  Such variety of plants begin to thrive but causes rainfall levels to decline.  This is since, they do not transpire.  This causes the land to become even more dry which in turn encourages more of such plants.  This latter view is often hidden from us until we surface this thinking as a cycle.  Unlike earlier, these cycles are now becoming vicious in nature.

These vicious cycles do two things.

If we are not watching it, these cycles cause the issue to recur.  They bring the problem back defying our efforts to correct it and do so with greater intensity in each iteration of the cycle.  They typically throw our action plans off their courses.  We see project implementation efforts as if they were failing.

These are what we see on the surface.  That is the self-seeking nature of these cycles of causality.  All is not what it seems.

Winning the Cycle

So how would we deal with such systemic directions and expect to win it?

To take care of the problem of water shortages, we would then have to take care of the water cycle.  The whole cycle.  Not parts of it.

What we saw here today is while your household may start greening your backyard, the combined effect of doing this collectively can be very powerful for a region on both the causes and consequences of rainfall for the region.  This answer is not for just one country.  We need to figure a way not to give up or be afraid to reach this out there in the region to everyone.  I am sure you see that!

Given these, what would you say are the implications of some typical action plans that we make (and this happens to all countries), on such a cycle?  Such as:

  • Recommending the growth of drought-resistant varieties of crops?
  • Producing livestock that depend on greens?
  • Production of brews?
  • Drilling or deepening of boreholes?  Dam construction?

In each instance, would you see the rainfall levels increase or could it decrease over time?  Would water table levels increase or decrease? What would be their consequences on growing of crops, on food security, growing of raw materials and in diversifying and developing a manufacturing base in the country?  On employment?

Well, I am sure; you and your friends will figure these questions out!

This and their impact on the economy will be the subject of discussion next week in the final part of this series of the column on “Have Greens, Will Rain!”  Till then have a lovely week discovering and learning!

This is the 4th segment of a five part series of this article.  Each part will build on the earlier article to an eventual conclusion.  We invite you to participate in the column as well as do your ‘own homework’ – searching and discussing the issue to build your own conclusions.  Next month, we look at HIV, its causes and its effects.

Ms Sheila Damodaran, an international strategy development consultant for national planning commissions welcomes comments at sheila@loatwork.com.  For upcoming programmes, refer to www.loatwork.com/Senior_Leadership_Introduction.html.