This blog is part of an online learning platform which includes the Pathways to New Community Paradigms Wiki and a number of other Internet based resources to explore what is termed here 'new community paradigms' which are a transformational change brought about by members of a community.


It is intended to offer resources and explore ideas with the potential of purposefully directing the momentum needed for communities to create their own new community paradigms.


It seeks to help those interested in becoming active participants in the governance of their local communities rather than merely passive consumers of government service output. This blog seeks to assist individuals wanting to redefine their role in producing a more direct democratic form of governance by participating both in defining the political body and establishing the policies that will have an impact their community so that new paradigms for their community can be chosen rather than imposed.


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Getting Real - Concrete Results, World's Shortest and Most Believed Fairy Tale

Over the course of this blog, and most particularly in learning systems thinking at a deeper level and seeking STW/STiA certification, some long assumed and usually unquestioned principles have been challenged. Questioning of entrenched city halls arose along with the questioning of the wisdom of being overly depended on command and control management of governmental institutions, particularly the local public sector, too often disconnected from the community and enmeshed in bureaucratic complicatedness to effectively address ‘wicked’ problems which by their nature are complex. 

Government institutions and the politicians or bureaucrats they shelter invariably focus almost exclusively on the benefits of their projects and programs seldom considering the true costs. Instead, any failures are blamed on unintended consequences or side effects. However, as Thriving on Systems, quoting John Sterman Business Dynamics: Systems Thinking and Modeling for a Complex World observes:

We frequently talk about side effects as if they were a feature of reality. Not so. In reality, there are no side effects, there are just effects. When we take action, there are various effects. The effects we thought of in advance, or were beneficial, we call the main, or intended effects. The effects we didnt anticipate, the effects - which fed back to undercut our policy, the effects which harmed the system - these are the ones we claim to be side effects. Side effects are not a feature of reality but a sign that our understanding of the system is narrow and flawed. Unanticipated side effects arise because we too often act as if cause and effect were always closely linked in time and space. But in complex systems such as an urban center or a hamster (or a business, society, or ecosystem) cause and effect are often distant in time and space.

The validity of claiming benefit derived from so-called concreteoutcomes should be questioned and seen as a talisman against complexity which with those same entrenched bureaucratic governmental institutions seem unable to cope. This was demonstrated through Systems Dynamics, by its creator J. W. Forrester, Professor Emeritus of Management System Dynamics at MIT in his article, Counterintuitive Behavior of Social Systems.

An example of this, provided by systemswiki.org, was the Canadian governments attempt to raise revenue by increasing tax on cigarettes to relieve Tax Revenue Pressure, which backfired because actual revenue dropped due to cigarette smuggling from the USA to Canada. There are many other examples of so-called unintended consequences.

The bigger problem though may be with the word concrete, which, as began to be suggested in the last blog post, is in truth an inane metaphor invoking images of unyielding, unchanging, set in stone, hard mass that is supposed to remain uncontested but then a never can happen black Swan event happens and the concrete results crumble. In response, we obsessively return to the pursuit of more concrete outcomes. It may be the worlds shortest and most believed fairy tale. This blog is also guilty of encouraging this dysfunctional approach by trying to reapply the word concrete to processes instead of outcomes to avoid too much exposure to abstract, often translated as touchy-feely thinking. 

Abstract thinking is at the heart of systems thinking and is essential if we are to make changes fundamental enough so that they will result in new community paradigms. Systems thinking provides models or formal abstractions of reality which allows deeper understanding of relationships in general or in specific circumstances without having to substantially impact a community. 

One such model was the Bird Feeder Dilemma (IM-8872), an Insight Maker model featured in the first blog post of this series, Getting Deep into ST - Systems Thinking Certification, in which the model helped demonstrate the reality that it is exceedingly difficult to have only one immediate effect from any action or one immediate cause for any effect since everything in the web of systems making up the world is so interconnected.

One such complex oriented approach was introduced in the last post. The Leveraging Grantmaking: Understanding the Dynamics of Complex Social Systems documented some of the non-linear issues arising from the communitys homelessness problem that had to be first recognized then addressed. 

Creating homeless shelter reduced visibility of the homelessness problem, thereby disabling energy in the larger community to create a long term solution "Shifting the Burden." 

Shifting the Burdenis a systems thinking archetype introduced in Systems Thinking - Looking for Something Concrete.  It is not a concrete thing. It is an abstract construct dependent upon the relation of elements in the particular system which will cease to be if those relationships change.

If systems thinking fails it is because a group is unwilling or unable to address the challenge with the full "system at work" in mind so that any solutions they devise are of a reduced scope because a full scope is seen as too difficult. 

This blog has railed against entrenched systems from which politicians and bureaucratic institutions derive power allowing them not to need to care about benefitting everyone in the community or about being fair. They  simply need to benefit only enough people to ensure getting reelected. Enough people does not have to mean a majority of community members, only a majority of those who turn out to vote every four years by providing the right incentives. If the system disincentives community engagement by significant portions of the community over the long term, it is then a reinforcing influence that contributes to the continuation of that system despite how badly it may appear to function.

However, this applies only to the deep structure of the system, the actors, even some of the structures within the system can change causing continual havoc. As William Powers, noted in his book Behavior: The Control of Perception

"Any system based on the control of behavior through the use of rewards (or, of course, punishments) contains the seeds of its own destruction. There may be a temporary period, lasting even for many generations, during which some exciting new system concept so appeals to people that they will struggle to live within its principles, but if those principles include incentives, which is to say arbitrary deprivation or withholding at the whim of human beings, inexorable reorganization will destroy the system from within: nature intervenes with the message, 'No! That feels bad. Change!’”


If we want to solve problems effectively...we must keep in mind not only many features but also the influences among them. Complexity is the label we will give to the existence of many interdependent variables in a given system. The more variables and the greater their interdependence, the greater the system's complexity. Great complexity places high demands on a planner's capacity to gather information, integrate findings, and design effective actions.

Dorner goes on to assert that, Complexity is not an objective factor but a subjective oneconcluding,Therefore there can be no objective measure of complexity.” Don’t fully agree with this position but it is in accord with my idea of coherent complexity

As has been observed before, systems thinking is often a journey without a roadmap or a set path. Systems modeling is a way of mapping unexplored territory so that others can join or follow. One does not have to be a geographer to follow a roadmap any more than one needs to be a modeler to understand a systems model. But like reading a map you need to know what the symbols mean, especially a topographic map which works in more than two dimensions. 

Systems Thinking, as has been asserted before, is not a thing and shouldnt be seen as such. True progress comes from understanding relationships and their implications in an abstract yet still comprehensive manner. The systems making up our communities and all that derive from them often call for uncommon sense. Unfortunately, as Gene has quipped elsewhere, complexity precludes any guarantees of, theres that word again, concrete outcomes and avoidance of unintended consequences, meaning that systems thinking only provides the opportunity for a good 'at bat'. 

The problem is that there is little to no consistency as to what defines systems thinking, covering as it does a wide range of Soft Systems to Dynamic Systems approaches and multitudes in-between. It is also subject to attack from two different sides often with seemingly weak defense among its own ranks. One from the past has been dealt with previously, the other, more recent, will be addressed in the future. Its detractors often use the very aspects which it is designed to protect against. 


We may not be able to get any concrete results from systems thinking but we can get some real results by being real in the way we address the challenge facing us. Real today though means recognizing the power of the Internet and that means going virtual.

3 comments:

  1. Marvelously coherent and meaningful. Love the references. It's all so difficult, yet so simple. And?

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  2. Fully agree with Gene. Great job on compiling a top notch set of quotes/references and knitting them together with a compelling critique of business-as-usual outcome narrative. (I can't remember the last time I heard someone reference William Powers and his amazing book.) I've bookmarked your site and will explore the rich set of resources you have compiled. Thanks for your service to our community.

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  3. Am speechless in front of your noble thoughts. Been a volunteer for a local poor kitchen...Ever think of the connections between poverty and miseries? how the professional "poors" know how to milk the system?
    Urban life is another edge of the reality...

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