Healing Vicious / Stubborn Problems

Systems Archetypes are just bad news!

You do not want them or even worse create them.

It is however, good news when we can now discover them.  But it is still not good news to keep them running and leaving their vicious trails behind or even consider planning to work around them.  Their vicious natures would need treating.

But how would you make that happen?

To illustrate the principles of healing a vicious cycles, we use a classic fable story that does so beautifully.  As you watch the story unfold, notice first the vicious natures of systemic structures and then note the principles used in problem solving that is unique in the context of systems thinking, playing out, and in turning vicious structures around.

 THE STORY – The Healing Poison

A long time ago, a girl named Li-Li got married and went to live with her husband and mother-in-law.

In a very short time, Li-Li found that she couldn’t get along with her mother-in-law at all.  Their personalities were very different, and Li-Li was angered by many of her mother-in-law’s habits.  In addition, she criticized Li-Li constantly.

Days passed days, and weeks passed weeks. Li-Li and her mother-in-law never stopped arguing and fighting.  But what made the situation even worse was that, according to ancient Chinese tradition,  Li-Li had to bow to her mother-in-law and obey her every wish.  ll the anger and unhappiness in the house was causing the poor husband great distress.

Finally, Li-Li could not stand her mother-in-law’s bad temper and dictatorship any longer, and she decided to do something about it.

Li-Li went to see her father’s good friend, Mr. Huang, who sold herbs.  She told him the situation and asked if he would give her some poison so that she could solve the problem once and for all.

Mr. Huang thought for awhile, and finally said, Li-Li, I will help you solve your problem, but you must listen to me and obey what I tell you.

Li-Li said, “Yes, Mr. Huang, I will do whatever you tell me to do.”

Mr. Huang went into the back room, and returned in a few minutes with a package of herbs.

He told Li-Li, “You can’t use a quick-acting poison to get rid of your mother-in-law, because that would cause people to become suspicious.  Therefore, I have given you a number of herbs that will slowly build up poison in her body.  Every other day prepare some pork or chicken and put a little of these herbs in her serving.  Now, in order to make sure that nobody suspects you when she dies, you must be very careful to act very friendly towards her.  Don’t argue with her, obey her every wish, and treat her like a queen.”

Li-Li was so happy.  She thanked Mr. Huang and hurried home to start her plot of murdering her mother-in-law.

Weeks went by, and months went by, and every other day, Li-Li served the specially treated food to her mother-in-law. She remembered what Mr. Huang had said about avoiding suspicion, so she controlled her temper, obeyed her mother-in-law, and treated her like her own mother.

The Healing Poison.jpg

After six months had passed, the whole household had changed.  Li-Li had practiced controlling her temper so much that she found that she almost never got mad or upset.  She hadn’t had an argument in six months with her mother-in-law, who now seemed much kinder and easier to get along with.

The mother-in-law’s attitude toward Li-Li changed, and she began to love Li-Li like her own daughter. She kept telling friends and relatives that Li-Li was the best daughter-in-law one could ever find. Li-Li and her mother-in-law were now treating each other like a real mother and daughter.  Li-Li’s husband was very happy to see what was happening.

One day, Li-Li came to see Mr. Huang and asked for his help again. She said, “Dear Mr. Huang, please help me to keep the poison from killing my mother-in-law! She’s changed into such a nice woman, and I love her like my own mother.  I do not want her to die because of the poison I gave her.”

Mr. Huang smiled and nodded his head. “Li-Li, there’s nothing to worry about. I never gave you any poison. All of the herbs I gave you were simply to improve her health.  The only poison was in your mind and your attitude toward her, but that has been all washed away by the love which you gave to her.”

MORAL: Friends, have you ever realized that how you treat others is exactly how they will treat you? In China it is said: The person who loves others will also be loved.


  1. Did Uncle solve the problem?  Is the structure likely to reverse by as much in the future? What meaning, in this instance, had the uncle carried when he says “solved”?
  2. Had he made any effort to present specific physical interventions for the two (such as arbitration, physical separations, ultimatums and so on)?
  3. If he had not (‘turned up at the scene of the crime’), how had he ‘managed’ to do this (remotely)?  What did he say?  Not say?  What did he do?  Not do?
    List ten things that had happened in the story to illustrate the four questions here. Those steps that had allowed the uncle resolve the systemic nature of the structure and help participants within the structure learn to turn it around from its vicious to virtuous nature by themselves?
  4. How long would it have taken the MIL & DIL, had they known what systemic structures are and had learned to work with them, to uncover the systemic structure and the time they would have taken to deal with it? Who can make the difference faster for them? Clients or the consultants? In which scenario would the work be more believable? What would this mean now in terms of the ways we manage change (in our change management efforts going forward)? For teams? For organizations? For the nation?
  5. Personal work: Notice what you had liked about the story. Notice also what you had struggled with?
  6. Personal work: Think of scenarios in your own realities that you may consider testing these principles with.  Record your thought, feelings, reactions and results as they happen.  Learn to become a keen observer of your realities. See and understand patterns.