How to get unstuck: unlocking the power of systems thinking

By Samuel Njenga

Samuel Njenga is the Director of Strategy and Training at Systems Thinking Africa, and co-author of Leading The Way Through CSI. He is also a trusted voice and partner to the Nation Builder community. In this article, he invites us to look at old problems through new lenses and elevate our thinking through a systems approach to problem solving.

So much money and time has been spent on our social sector, aiming to address needs and thereby transform our society. So many initiatives have been launched as part of Corporate Social Investment (CSI), Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), or the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – but questions are being raised as to the actual impact achieved by these initiatives, and the long term sustainability of the social sector in our country.

How did we get stuck?

I get the feeling that, somehow, we are stuck. We are stuck doing the same things, again and again, hoping to get different results. Arnold Smit and myself published our book Leading The Way Through CSI in 2007, and I’m not sure that enough has changed in the sector since then.

As Kenneth Halstead wrote in his book From Stuck To Unstuck: ‘Stuckness is primarily the result of well-intended, attempted solutions built into the rules and structure of the system – solutions that create life-draining feedback loops.’ Applying this to the South African context, we keep throwing money at the same type of poverty programmes, we keep trying to implement the same solutions. We need to see how our ‘way of thinking’ has been built into the structure of our organisations and our decision-making processes, and has become life-draining, and even has unintended, negative consequences.

We have turned non-profits into beggars through our donor mentality. We’ve also accepted a ‘chequebook philanthropy’ – which means that we only make resources available when business is going well. But what happens to that same gogo in the village when we practice start-stop giving? 

Systems thinking creates a new way forward

We need a different way of thinking. Social initiatives should be boardroom topics – they should not be separated from company strategy. What happens ‘out there’ is connected to what happens inside the company. As the pioneering systems scientist, Sir Geoffrey Vickers observed, ‘We are trapped not so much by the external reality, but by our thinking.’ He had been looking at lobster basket traps, and noticed that the lobsters, once inside, failed to find a way out of the trap, even though the size of the hole remained the same. 

The point is that these complicated problems cannot be solved. One company cannot ‘solve’ poverty. We need to move away from mechanistic, linear thinking, to what we refer to as systems thinking. In my view, companies, non-profits and government departments involved in the social sector need to move away from thinking ‘this is the problem, and this is the solution’, to building an ecosystem of socioeconomic upliftment. In other words – yes, we are currently trapped inside this lobster basket, but that is not our biggest challenge. Our biggest challenge is how we think about where we are.

From donor-recipient meetings, to fireplace conversations

Systems thinking is both ‘systemic’ (being holistic, seeing the bigger picture), and ‘systematic’ (remaining grounded, engaging in a practical way). Through a systems thinking approach, we can go beyond meetings between CSI departments and the non-profits they support, to transformative conversations that shape our thinking. For this to happen, we have to start from the premise that there cannot be healthy business without healthy society.

It would do us well to revive the age-old practice of ‘fireplace conversations’ in order to:

1. Recognise and understand the interdependencies in the social sector.

2. Seek out multiple perspectives on the social sector, to have a better picture of reality. 

3. Address power issues within the social sector.

Fireplace conversations create connection, and spark creativity and the imagination. We are all in this ‘lobster basket’ together. We simply cannot build an ecosystem of socioeconomic development that will avoid unintended consequences, and bring about meaningful change, without embracing a new way of thinking. We need to be exposed to what different stakeholders are wrestling with, and we need to ensure that when we bring different people into the room, everyone feels that their voice will be heard.

Let’s return to the fireside – a meeting ground of diverse perspectives and cultures and histories – and build from there. 

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