The reinforcing loop is one of the two foundational structures of systems thinking, the other being the Balancing Loop.
Without a reinforcing loop, change may begin but it does not complete. Without reinforcing loops, one would not see growth. And certainly not, growth forever.
In all reinforcing causalities, a small change builds on itself. High birth rates lead to higher birth rates, industrial growths lead to more industrial growths. Within a reinforcing loop, the action you take produces a result which influences (or causes) more of the same action thus resulting in growth or decline. The change is the result of something else also changing that wills you to want to change which in turn influences more of the same action and so on. The first action you had taken was, in fact, caused. Note, this is NOT the act of reinforcing. There is no act. There is only a causality,
Don’t underestimate the explosive nature of these causalities. It does not stop. It completes the change to a point of no return. Like the snowball that builds itself into an avalanche. In their presence, linear thinking can always get us into trouble.
The reinforcing loop is the story that underpins all virtuous and vicious cycles. This is anything that seeks to grow, ON ITS OWN. The terms virtuous circle and vicious circle (also referred to as virtuous cycle and vicious cycle) refer to complex chains of events that reinforce themselves through a causal loop that feeds back to itself. A virtuous circle has favorable results, while a vicious circle has detrimental results.
Here are some examples of reinforcing loops
- Rumors – “I told only one person and soon everyone knew.”
- Avalanche – “It was a snowball gathering mass and speed”
- Viruses – “Only a few people were identified with the virus at first, but now it has become an epidemic”
- Population – “That area is experiencing a population explosion”
- Fashion – “That fashion fad caught on quickly and soon everyone was wearing it”
- Credit Card Interest – “I don’t charge much on my card, but since I do not pay it off every month, the interest keeps compounding”
- Market Confidence – “As the confidence in the stock market decreased, the crash began to accelerate, creating even less confidence”
- Soil Fertility – “As the biological health of the soils decreases, soil fertility declines. More soluble fertilizer is used, decreasing the soil fertility even further”
- Learning – “As we see our parents seek less learning by reading, so do we as their children learn not to do more of the same”
- Economy – “We struggle to find investments to keep the economy steady.”
Which loop do you hear in each one of them? Are the loops reinforcing positively or negatively?
What do you think others, who have yet to understand what Systems Thinking is, would hear?
The tricky part to applying systemic thinking is, when we had been applying balancing loop strategies for a very long time, to what essentially requires strategies that support the reinforcing loop, we begin to recognize the difficulties in shifting as the mind as it has become set in one way (that is mental models). This now gets in the way of being able to turn reinforcing loops around from their vicious natures. The only trouble then, is should we continue to ignore reinforcing loops, the more difficult it will become for the shifts to eventually happen.
Often I get the question, so if “this” now acts as a loop, where would I begin? My simple answer to the question would be it would depend on what part of the loop do you want to see more of happen. Step back and decide where then would you begin.
Now, that’s my simple answer. But there is a fundamental flaw to the question. Reinforcing loops are causal structures. They are not process maps. The two are not the same. Can you agree? What in your view, would would be the differences, if any, that lie between the two?
DISTINCTIONS IN DEFINING PROCESS MAPPING AND UNCOVERING CAUSAL STRUCTURES
STRUCTURE OF THE REINFORCING LOOP
Download to see reinforcing loops in motion.
PATTERN OF BEHAVIOR OF THE STRUCTURE OVER TIME
EXAMPLE OF REINFORCING LOOPS
Now that we have seen the ways reinforcing loops are distinct from process maps, what would we need to do to prepare as well as to anticipate when we begin to work with reinforcing loops? The following are areas to consider:
- Each time, you would find causal structures are already underway. They are “in the process”.
- The question, “Has it already started?” or “where do we begin”, would look like we had to wait for someone to press the “Start” button before it begins. That is not the case with causal structure. It has ahead of you before you have had a chance to get to the “starting line” to begin. That is why we love process maps. We enjoy knowing when we can initiate the button. To launch. That we are the ones in control.
- However, that is not the case so with causal maps. You may find that they may have been running long before you were even born and have even become the products of that structure. To add to these, it dawns on us eventually that there is no “Stop” button either. The structure runs its own course, just as a river would remembering its old paths, even when the beds have dried up and humans have taken over and occupied it. Or animals remember its migratory paths when the rains begin. They still run through.
- Realizing this is the case, sometimes is daunting for us as it feels like we are not the ones in control of these structures. That is the first realization. The sense of helplessness and an immediate reaction to raise our hands and the white flag and throw in the towel and go back to our ways of “fighting it”. Except we now prepare to fight even harder.
- Most of the time, the causal structures are reinforcing or behaving negatively. This often comes as a rude shock and an awakening even for the best of us. “Who made things worse here?” is a thought that crosses our minds when we realize this is happening. Crimes are rising, Health is declining. Affordable housing is declining. Employment is declining. Primary industries are declining. Rate of growth of the economy is declining. Conflicts are rising. The freedom to make personal and collaborative choices are declining. And so on. “How did we allow ourselves to let things go this far?” is the next thought that begins to cross our minds.
- A question I would sometimes get is, would the structure stop after one iteration or when it has reached its intended goal? The answer is no. The reinforcing structure is not running because it was set into motion to reach a specific goal (that would be you going back to the process map thinking). It runs regardless. All of the players in the system are reacting in ways to the structure, not knowing how other players in it are also reacting that continues to set the pace for the causal loop to reinforce.
- How do we then determine at what rates are these structures running at? As a way to appreciate this, we conduct an exercise called “Paper Folding to the Moon“.
How many times would you need to fold a piece of paper in half so that it can reach the Moon?
Well, that’s the power of an exponential, that it lets you turn small things into huge things by simply compounding what you have over and over again.
The longer they have been in motion in a particular direction, the faster they run in the same direction. It would be just like a wheel running down a hill. It goes at breakneck speeds eventually. That would be the experience of police stations, judiciary, public services around the world experience as they see the files pile up. That is the result of these reinforcing loops at play when they are left unchecked.
- How would you then treat them? Do we redraw the structure? Do we break the link? Where do we start? The more accurate question to ask would be “What do I do?” It assumes none of the above is a possible action step. And that is the reality. We do not redraw the structure, nor break them or treat one part but not the whole. To get a clue of what this means, refer to the segment on this site called “Healing Vicious / Stubborn Problems“.
The distinction between causal structures and process mapping
|Characteristics||Process Mapping||Causal Structure|
|Starts with …||Purpose:|
A worthy purpose requires that a customer exists with a need that is satisfied by the process, and an input is delivered by a process supplier that is then transformed into a product or service that the customer values.
It is often said, A process that does not have a worthy purpose should not exist.
|Spotting a persistent issue and then giving it an identity (examples within parenthesis).|
|Who defines it||The customer||The community for which governments have responded to the issues by setting up and funding ministries and then institutions to serve the community to deal with the persistent issue.|
|The block||Employee engagement, ownership, connectivity, analysis – all of which are different steps in the process needed to ensure the employees understands, improves and sustains with high-quality commitment and employee ownership||Makes the mistake of identifying process maps to the exclusion of identifying causality that has caused the issue to stay persistent.|
|The process||Is defined by man||Is discovered or uncovered but never defined.|
|Understanding feedback||The reaction the customer offers to the quality of service offered. The feedback offered here is to help the service provider ascertain the gap between the current and intended quality of service offering.||The impact a change in the quality and quantity of a factor will have on another variable in the cycle and the resulting impact the change in the variable will have on the original factor. There is no “feedback” offered here by any customer in this case. It is a natural consequence of a change. E.g. the more vegetation we plant, the more rains and therefore more water and therefore the more vegetation we are able to plant (and vice-versa).|
|Steps involved||Some typical steps used in identifying process maps are:|
|Some typical steps used in identifying causal structures are:|
|Place of operation||Within the mandate of the organization||Outside of the mandate of the organization but including the community.|
|Next steps||Implement the entire process with measurement, monitoring and improvement systems to ensure sustainability. However the awareness we apply to the implementation of the process is in parts.||Identify leverage action steps (the part of the structure that is the least obvious) that help the issue begin to lose its vicious natures and turn around to assume its virtuous natures. The monitoring systems essentially are extending the data tables over time to observe the behavior of the structure over time. The sensibility to seeing changes for the system needs to continue to apply on the whole.|
|Outcome||Customer that is satisfied with the process of service offered by the organization||Communities find they are dealing with less of the persistent issues that plagued their communities and instead find themselves enjoying a greater sense of abundance instead:|
– There is now more rainfall
– They are acquiring skills
– They are creating jobs
– There are less conflicts