The benefits of being aware of how a system works


For those that have participated in any of the training events that I have contributed to in the last years would hopefully recall my favorite energizer called the Systems Game. In this game we simulate a complex system, with all the participants moving around trying to position themselves between two targets in the group, without the targets being aware who is chasing them. Things usually start of neat and tidy, but soon chaos breaks out.  After the game we reflect on the system and how to better understand its behavior, and also how to figure out how to stimulate change of behavior in the system.

The pictures below were taken in the last Mesopartner International Summer Academy on Economic Development.

The participants secretly determine who they will follow
The participants tries to become system aware – who is following me?

One of the first insights is that our job as practitioners is not to try and fix the system, nor to solve a problem on behalf of the system. Our first job is to try and get the system to become more aware of its own behaviors, issues and dilemmas. Very often this will allow us to use some of the existing relationships, routines and networks of the system to improve the performance or to address some issues in the system.

I received the following little e-mail story recently that actually shows how actors that are aware of the system can easier manipulate the system to achieve certain outcomes. From a few google searches I could not determine the source of the story, except to see that its been featured in many fora. Therefere if you know the original source then please let me know so that I can give proper credit.

Here is the story as I received in my e-mail:

An old man wanted to plant a tomato garden, but it was difficult work, as the ground was hard.

His only son, Vincent, who used to help him, was in prison, and so the old man wrote a letter to his son:
Dear Vincent,
I am feeling sad because I won’t be able to plant my tomato garden this year. I’m too old already.
I know if you were here,  you would happily dig the plot for me, like in the old days.
Love,
Papa

A few days later, he received a letter from his son.
Dear Papa,
Don’t dig up that garden. That’s where the bodies are buried.
Love, Vinnie

At 4 am the next morning, FBI agents and police arrived and dug up the entire area without finding any bodies.
They apologised to the old man and left.

That day, he received another letter from his son:

Dear Papa,
Go ahead and plant the tomatoes now. That’s the best I could do under the circumstances.
Love, Vinnie

Now the moral of this story is that only people that are aware of how a system might behave can fully exploit the system to their advantage. I wonder how we can use this insight to promote better inclusiveness in development? From my everyday work experience I know that in value chains and production systems the poor, weak, small and marginalized are often the least aware of how the bigger system(s) around them work. The powerful, better informed and more successful entrepreneurs often have better information at their disposal. While some of this information could be formal, quite a bit of it is qualitative based on a deeper understanding of how things (might) work.

2 Responses to “The benefits of being aware of how a system works”

  1. Marcus Jenal Says:

    Hey Shawn. Excellent metaphor for systemic action. It reminded me of a book I heard about from Lucho (who else …) on acting indirectly to achieve ones goals – I haven’t read it, yet, though. It’s called ‘Obliquity: Why Our Goals Are Best Achieved Indirectly’ and is written by John Kay.

    Like

  2. frankwaeltring Says:

    Hi Shawn, thanks for this nice story and the link to the system game. It will be exciting to reflect about how to identify better how the complex systems in our work function and to provide our target groups with more information about this respective system around them.

    Like


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: