Episode 105

December 10, 2023


Episode 105 - Systems Change with David Peter Stroh

Hosted by

Patrick Jinks, PhD, BCC
Episode 105 - Systems Change with David Peter Stroh
The Leadership Window
Episode 105 - Systems Change with David Peter Stroh

Dec 10 2023 | 01:15:40


Show Notes

Your system is set up perfectly to get the results you are currently getting! If you want things to change, you have to change the system. Systems change expert and author David Peter Stroh visits wth Patrick to discuss what systems change actually means, and how to go about addressing social issues at a systemic level.

David is a founding partner of Bridgeway Partners, a consulting firm dedicated to helping mission-centered leaders reframe and resolve intractable social and environmental problems. He is also a founding director of the consulting group and informational website www.appliedsystemsthinking.com and a member of the systems thinking faculty for the Academy for Systems Change. David was previously one of the founders of Innovation Associates, the consulting firm whose pioneering work in the area of organizational learning formed the basis for fellow co-founder Peter Senge’s management classic The Fifth Discipline.

David is internationally recognized for his work in enabling leaders to apply systems thinking to achieve breakthroughs around chronic, complex problems and to develop strategies which improve system-wide performance over time. He has been described as “a magician” and “the master at providing interesting and useful ways to look at the complexity of systems thinking”, who “helped us tremendously in getting to the core issues” with “the mind of a scientist and the heart of a healer.” His clients have included The Nature Conservancy, National Centers for Disease Control, U.S. Institute of Peace, Foundation for the Carolinas, Omidyar Group, Kellogg Foundation.

David is also the author of the highly regarded book Systems Thinking for Social Change: A Practical Guide for Solving Complex Problems, Avoiding Unintended Consequences, and Achieving Lasting Results, a #1 Best-Seller in Non-Governmental Organization Policy which readers praise as "an essential - and long overdue - guide to applied systems thinking" that "shows you how to enlist others in the effort" by "masterfully weaving metaphor, story, and practical tools" using "down-to-earth language."


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Episode Transcript

[00:00:30] Patrick: Don't look now, but it's December. Holy moly. This year? I don't know. Does every year just go faster and faster? I don't know what it is. However, I am really excited about 2024, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. Let's live this day out and get a great end of the year. So we got some momentum heading into the new year. Welcome to episode 105, folks. My guest today is David Peter Strow. He is founding partner of Bridgeway Partners. They're a consulting firm dedicated to helping mission centered leaders reframe and resolve intractable social and environmental problems. That sounds pretty valuable to me. We're going to talk a little bit about it. David's been called everything from a scientist to a healer to a magician when it comes to helping his clients understand and address social issues at a systemic level. So if you and your nonprofit have talked at all about systems change, this is the episode for you. David's clients have ranged from the Nature Conservancy to the center for Disease Control, from the Kellogg Foundation to the Institute of Peace. So he has done some heavy lifting with some clients in this work around systems. His book is a number one bestseller entitled Systems Thinking for Social Change, and we are thrilled to get to pick his brain on The Leadership Window. David, thank you and welcome to the show. [00:02:07] DAVID: Patrick, thank you very much for having me. Pleasure to be here. [00:02:11] Patrick: Well, I mean, this introduction of mine could have gone on and on and on. You just got a huge body of work and a lot of things that we could talk about. But I'm just going to turn it to you and let you tell us more. What was your path to this work and tell us what you're doing for the world. [00:02:30] DAVID: Oh, boy. Well, way back when, I started out on a path to becoming an urban transportation planner, and I was interested in helping people connect more effectively to each other and to their environment. I recognized there was an engineering or design component to it, as well as a social and psychological aspect to it. Have degrees in engineering and in urban planning. Along the way, I found that the jobs I had in large bureaucracies were government bureaucracies were very frustrating. And so I got actually more interested in the processes and dynamics in organizations and why it was so difficult for people to work effectively in those organizations. A professor of mine at MIT had written a book, and one of his chapters was The Role of the Integrator in Society and I was really curious about that. And he said, oh, sounds like you might be interested in something called organization development, which at the time I'd never heard of. And so I took my first course in organization development in the Sloan School of Management at MIT and found myself, on the one hand, enormously excited by the values that people were expressing that work can be as much fun as play, that people are really more responsible if you give them that opportunity. And so I dove in fully with part of me. The reason I say that is I found that there was also a lot of frustration among people in the field about why don't senior people really listen to us? And so I felt like something was missing and I didn't quite know what it was. And several years later I reconnected with someone who'd been in the first OD class with me, who was starting a consulting firm, and it was bringing what at the time were considered New Age ideas to personal growth into the organization development realm. Now, if you go back to the 1960s, most of the basis for organization development work when it came to psychology and sociology had to do with feelings and being able to express feelings at work. What the New Age approach focused much more on was how people think and how their thinking influences the way they feel. It was also much more on the importance of purpose and vision aspirationally based leadership rather than simply problem solving. And it doesn't mean that problem solving isn't important, but it recognizes that for problem solving to be meaningful, it needs to be within a bigger context. What is the vision aspirations of the organization and how can problem solving tools further that sense of mission and vision? So that drew me. And then there was also a design component. How do you think about organization structures and eventually the structures of larger systems and how those behave and most importantly, how they tend to thwart leaders best efforts to improve their performance? As much rapid change as there is around us, there is also an enormous amount of stability. And we often call that stability, resistance to change. Not so easy to change things. And in fact, when we try to make changes, more often than not we may make some short term progress and things actually get worse in the long term or our short term improvements make ultimately no long term difference. And I'd like to refer people to a set of headlines that you might have read something like this in a newspaper at one point at least, the stories are all true homeless shelters perpetuate homelessness, food aid increases starvation, drug busts increase, drug related crime and so on. An endless list of well intended solutions with longer term, unintended consequences that negate or actually make matters worse over time. So it's very important to start with some humility and some curiosity why often, despite people's best efforts, are we not making the progress that we feel we should be making, particularly with the amount of resources that we've been investing? And so my goal in working with leaders is to help them recognize how systems tend to undermine our best intentions. And conversely, what can we understand about how systems really behave and really evolve over time? Because they certainly do evolve, and we want to be able to do that as consciously and deliberately as possible in service of the higher purposes that we're trying to accomplish. [00:09:32] Patrick: David, that is an excellent setup, and particularly the part where you read the headlines. My mind went to a book a few years back by Robert Lupton called Toxic Charity where he talks about how the whole sector is perpetuating that kind of thing because we are addressing it at a charitable level and not a change level. Those aren't his words. But here's the thing. Let's just dig right into it here. When you talk about getting to the systems, systems change. I hear it all the time. I hear systems change among our nonprofit clients as much as I hear strategic planning or whatever. It's kind of become one of the nonprofit buzzwords, maybe on the corporate side too, actually, but in a different way. But it does mean something. It just sounds so hard. It sounds so much more difficult that I think many, if not most nonprofit leaders and their boards and staff are just paralyzed by it. They don't even know where to start on that. So I guess my first question would be, you're a magician. I remember reading that a magician in this work. How do you get clients unparalyzed and off dead center and just even feeling like, yes, they can do something in this work. They can grasp it, they can make a difference. How do you get them started? [00:11:17] DAVID: That's a great question, Patrick. I asked people, how many of you found yourselves picking up after your kids and the messes they made for long after you thought you should have to do that? And you're smiling over there. I see that. And that's the reaction I get from a lot of folks. [00:11:45] Patrick: It's a little too real. [00:11:47] DAVID: Person actually said, I'm still doing it, and they're in their mid 30s. So I say, okay, great. I understand. It's not easy to admit. Thank you. Now I teach this stuff, and let me tell you what happened as our son was growing up. The clothes would pile up on his floor, bedroom floor, and he actually had a bathroom with a laundry hamper about 5ft away. And I'd say, Son, just pick up your clothes, put them in the hamper right there, and he wouldn't appear. And I'd say, Come on, come on, pick up your clothes. Just stick them in the hamper. Nothing. Finally, I'd get so exasperated that I'd pick up the clothes for him. I'd put them in the hamper and I'd think to myself, oh, gosh, I'm done. And then my son would come back in the room and he'd look at the spot on the floor where the clothes had been and he looked and he said, oh, that worked. That's systems thinking. It's actually child's play. He understood at an early age about time delay, about nonlinear consequences, about shifting the burden of responsibility to elsewhere in the system. And he acted on it instinctively. And as I said, I teach this stuff and I ended up playing right into it. [00:13:39] Patrick: Well, we experience it in just one on one leadership coaching. I will often coach a senior leader who laments that their team members keep coming to them to solve all their problems. And then I watch it happen. I watch them come, and then the leader solves the problem and I go, oh, well, so tell me, why do you think your people keep coming to you to solve the maybe it's because I keep solving them. Like, hey, if I had someone that would solve all my problems for me, I'd go to them all the time too. And that works if you like it. But if you want to get them to lead, then yeah, it has to be done differently. So you're right. That's a good analogy that we can take something that granular and the concept is the same at a big societal level. It's just more layers. [00:14:31] DAVID: Yes, and there certainly is more complexity to it. But I think that a lot of these natural instincts that we have tend to get educated out of us by our more linear education system, which tries to divide complexity into finer and finer parts and optimize each part. Deepen your understanding of each part and then somehow expect that you'll be able to put it all back together again at the end and have something better, when in fact, that's not the way systems improve their performance. And in fact, one of the other things I do early on working with leaders is help them distinguish what I would call conventional or linear thinking from systems thinking. So they have a way of codifying some of the distinctions. One of them is that with simple problems and simple solutions, sort of the solutions are obvious because they're very close in time and space to the problems. So, for example, if I cut my hand, I put a bandaid on it, I'm done. Simple problem, simple solution. But all of the problems that we're dealing with in complex social systems and natural systems are ones where the problems or let's put it this way the root causes of the problems that we are trying to deal with often occur in another part of the system and often many, many years ago. And as Thomas, who's a medical essayist and president of Sloan Kettering Institute said you cannot step in and set about fixing without really understanding what it is that you're trying to fix. Too often we step in and as I say, the system operates in such a way as to neutralize our best efforts. So recognizing that where the symptoms show up and where the problems have occurred are not necessarily in the same place means we're less likely to just simply chase after the most immediate crisis or try to put out the most immediate fire. Not that we don't feel depending on where we choose to put ourselves in the nonprofit space, are we just going to be content with putting out fires and managing crises? Or do we really want to dig deeper and address the underlying policies, processes, power dynamics and relationships, the underlying perceptions or mental models or beliefs or assumptions and ultimately the underlying intention or purpose that give rise to the symptoms that we're currently scurrying around and trying to ameliorate? [00:18:16] Patrick: Yeah. And in my experience, most of the nonprofits and leaders do want to get at the root cause again. They talk about it, they want to get to it. They're trying to, like I said, get off dead center. There's more understanding today now for example, around things like social determinants of health, right? That health is not just the hospital. Health is determined prenatal. It's determined in early childhood. It's determined by your neighborhood and the health of your neighborhood and socioeconomics and the family unit and the public education system and you name it. There's so many social determinants of health and everybody understands that or a lot of people understand that. They know, for example, that to get homeless people off the street, the answer can't just be create a shelter. The question has to be asked why are they there? How do we get to that? The challenge I hear a lot as I'm coaching is Patrick, we get that, but we can't just stop building the shelters either. Like we have to do both right now. There's an immediate need. There is a charitable function. We need to teach people to fish. But there are people right now who just need a fish. And so how do we do both at the same time with limited capacity? Is that a common challenge in your work? That they certainly get it, they just know they have to do both at the same time? [00:19:58] DAVID: I think for and I certainly understand the quandary, I think that the challenge is and there's kind of a dynamic in systems I mentioned this idea of shifting the burden to the intervener or to the quick fix. It's actually the underlying dynamic of addiction. Addiction is a quick fix which people use to deal with a much deeper sense of pain, frustration, whatever it is. And the problem is that depending on that quick fix more and more over time actually undermines your ability to implement the fundamental solution. [00:21:05] Patrick: Wow. [00:21:05] DAVID: It's not neutral as those executives you're referring to are aware. You can't put your money in both places at once and ironically, if you put too many resources into the shelter system, it also reduces pressure in the community to deal with the problem because it tends to be out of sight, out of mind. And so the more fundamental response of some kind of housing first approach tends to not succeed at the ballot box, it's not in my backyard, et cetera. And moreover, there is a shelter industry that has grown that is accustomed to feeding itself, again, all with the best of intentions. But this is not only for the shelter directors, but for the donors. How do they measure their success? Often it's in terms of the percent of beds filled in a shelter, but how on earth are we going to end homelessness if we consider 100% beds filled to be a success? [00:22:50] Patrick: Right there, I want to pause because I want to get your take on this. I did my doctoral dissertation on nonprofit mission measurement, and the question was, how are nonprofits measuring their performance against their stated missions? And what I found was that, well, there are very few that are doing it. Number one, those that are doing it one of two things. There's a combination of things that sort of come together, and the first is that they've crafted a good meaning, a good mission statement, poor mission statement development makes it hard to measure or impossible to measure. The second was that there are organizations who are collecting data at a community level. They're in this whole collective impact model where they have shared metrics. So they're not the only ones collecting data. They've defined the indicators of what independence means or what self sufficiency means, or what academic success means. They've created a framework for those, and they've done it collectively. But the third category of organizations that are measuring against their mission well is they have limited their missions to just their role in the ecosystem. So, for example, a niche organization, a homeless shelter. Let's stay on that one for a moment. Or a free clinic, right? A free medical clinic. You go there, you get free health. If you don't have health insurance, you can go to the free clinic. Volunteer doctors from around a community will care for you, et cetera. There are free clinics around the country who are proposing to truly be an integral part of a community's health system that are truly looking and caring about quality care. And then there are those free clinics who just say, look, we know all that stuff is necessary. But right now, our role, our position to play on the field is get them care. Right now, if they're uninsured, we get them care. So their mission is to provide access to health care for people who wouldn't have it otherwise. Well, then, okay, then you are doing that. You are meeting that mission. You are indeed expanding access. You have not charged yourself with improving the health of your community. That's not what your mission says so I'd like your take on that. To me, honestly, it feels appropriate to say, look, we know our lane, we know our limits, we know our capabilities. We know that what we're doing is of value in the community. We're not trying to be the one to solve it all. We know we're a small part of the ecosystem. Even though we may not be playing the bigger ecosystem game collectively with others, we at least do recognize that. [00:25:52] DAVID: Well, I think that's a great example, Patrick. I've done a little bit of work in the health equity space, but let me come back to homelessness for a moment around this specific example. In the homelessness work I've done and pointing out this dynamic to the community around shelters being a quick fix that actually undermined the abilities, community ability to end homelessness. What we came to see is that there really was this mission choice that you're referring to, and perhaps the deepest source of structure and leverage that leaders have is in this mission question. When you design a homelessness system that is fundamentally based on shelters, then you're designing a system that is perfectly designed. You have a system, you're running a system that is perfectly designed to help people cope with homelessness. You are not designing or managing a system to end homelessness. [00:27:25] Patrick: Right? [00:27:26] DAVID: And that distinction is very important. If you want to be in the coping business, as you said, with respect to health care, a similar analogy, then that's fine. Just make that choice consciously and don't say your mission is about ending homelessness, because it isn't. On the other hand, if your mission is about ending homelessness, then you have to redesign what you do and how you do it to support that mission. And a great example in the homelessness space was the pine street inn in Boston, which had been a shelter for years. And the executive director kept seeing the same people come back into the shelter year after year and thought, I just don't want to keep doing this. And so they started buying up some properties and they became landlords of affordable housing for homeless people to have that housing first, permanent, safe, supportive place, to have a permanent roof over their heads, they changed their mission from helping their clients cope with homelessness to ending it. And they did it very deliberately. And it obviously took a bunch of years. It took a lot of convincing of their board, but that's the direction they moved in and that's the shift that they made. [00:29:13] Patrick: We've got an organization doing very similar work here in the midlands of South Carolina, an organization called homeless no more. And they actually used to be called st. Lawrence place. And St. Lawrence place was a so. And by the way, they still have it. What they have done is they have said, we're not going to move just from shelter to housing first. And being landlords of properties and these kinds of things, which they do. What we're going to do is we're going to continue adding a programmatic approach or a systems approach throughout the continuum. So I need shelter today. Maybe I need a transition space, maybe I need permanent housing, maybe I need homeownership. And all through that continuum is a different way of thinking. And they've learned they have to do this in partnership with others. United Way or Habitat for Humanity or the business community neighborhood, whatever it is. But that's what they've done is they not only changed their mission, they changed their name to reflect that this is more than just a shelter. So let me shift gears real quick here. I asked you about how you get organizations off dead center. And your answer, as I heard it, was we start by simplifying the definition of systems and you use those analogies to make it. This is really, at the end of the day, all it is. If you were to take it then from where you start to how you go through getting into systems change, what would be the next ten? Like, is there a model of, say, look, here are the three to five steps to addressing things at a systems level? What would those sort of without I know we don't have time to go through your whole book right now, which would be great. I do want to encourage people to get it. I have it and did some of my reading of your book when I was doing my research, in fact. But if you were to summarize it and say, look, there's really three to five key tenets or steps in addressing systems change, what would those be? [00:31:27] DAVID: Well, I think the first thing you need to do is start with a question. And the question needs to be start with a why, not how to, which is where people want to jump to, but why? Along the lines of why, despite often despite people's best efforts, have we been unable to solve this particular problem or achieve this particular goal? And the reason for that why question is twofold. One is it slows down the problem solving? Because people do like to jump to solutions and they often end up trying to implement solutions, as I said, that get neutralized over time or make matters worse. And secondly, we're trying to recognize that the deeper causes of the problem are really where the leverage lies. If we're going to bridge this gap that for some reason we haven't been able to bridge, we need to be able to get to root causes. And one of the other questions that I often pose for people is if you think you know the solution, why haven't you implemented it? And that kind of slows you down. And often, by the way, people will point to the reason that I can't implement my solution is because of the other people in the system who are. [00:33:26] Patrick: Holding me back all the time. I hear it all the time. [00:33:30] DAVID: Yeah. So what systems thinking does is several things. And first of all, what this first why question does is it helps people create some boundaries. I mean, ultimately everything is connected to everything else. And when I help people draw systems maps to understand the underlying causes of why they're stuck, why do I draw the boundaries here versus somewhere else? Because if ultimately everything is connected, you can accurately reproduce so much complexity so quickly as to be overwhelmed and not be able to move, you end up paralyzing yourself. The why question creates boundaries. What do we choose to lose leave in? What do we choose to not include? And if we don't include it, it doesn't mean that it's not important. It just means that in terms of the part of the system that we have greater control over or influence over, this is where we can pay attention. And often there'll be a problem, let's say in the homelessness case where obviously homelessness is linked to economic development. But if I'm in the homelessness space, I can't be thinking too much about economic development. But I know that a lot of my clients are here because they can't get a job. So I obviously need to engage with, partner with in some way, at least be informed by what the people in my community in the economic development space are doing. But I have to also focus on what I have control or influence over most. And so this why question helps create those boundaries and not try to map everything and feel then overwhelmed by it after posing some kind of why question, at least a draft question. It's very important to convene a group of diverse stakeholders who have a similar type of concern. And you could be the funder who's doing the convening. You could be a municipal government or a state government or whatever level of community you're working with. And to ensure that that group is as diverse as possible, different perspectives. Because one of the other analogies we like to use in this work is the Blind Men and the elephant. So different blind people touching different parts of an elephant and swearing that the trunk is like a snake and the ear is like a fan and the hair is like a brush and so on, because that's the part of the system that they see. But nobody sees the whole system or even enough of it to be effective. And so what the why question does is it helps people paint a more comprehensive picture of the elephant that everybody is dealing with. And I like to say that to lead systems change, you need two different types of alignment. You need alignment around a shared direction, but you also need alignment around a shared understanding of current reality, of what that elephant really looks like. And when I say current reality, I don't just mean the number of homeless people or the mortality rate for young kids, et cetera. I'm talking about why those symptoms persist. And it's in deepening our shared understanding of that. Why, along with having a shared direction that we can hope to make some progress. Another part of the system's work. And helping people deepen their understanding of why things are the way they are to me, was best stated. By Bill Torbert, who's a professor emeritus of leadership at Boston College, who said, if you are not aware of how you are part of the problem, you can't be part of the solution. And that's very humbling for people and challenging for people who one have dedicated their lives to being part of the solution are working hard to be part of the solution and yet who assume that the reasons that they can't make any progress have to do with someone or something out there. And the only problem with that is it's very hard to change out there. Ultimately, the greatest source of control you have over any system, at least to start with, is over your own intentions, your own beliefs and assumptions and your own actions. [00:40:04] Patrick: I just want to pause right there. I want to interject right there. I'm keen to hear things that relate back to leadership too and the leadership coaching work that we do. And our coach trainer when I was getting certified initially was Dr. Jim Smith at Leadership Systems and he always said you can't coach who's not in the room. And so when I'm faced as a coach with a leader's lamentations about John or Bill or sue in the organization who just won't get their act together or resists everything, or my boss who doesn't empower me and it's always everybody else, our question always has to be what is your role? And what's the next step for you to take to influence the situation in such a way that increase the chances of success? We can't coach Bill and sue and they're not here and we can't control them. So what's your role? It always comes back to the self accountability and your role. And what I'm hearing there, and I don't know that I've fully thought of it this way until listening to the way you frame it is that exact same tenet applies at the organizational and system level in a society of not just what's my role in fixing it, but what's my role in why it is the way it is. How am I playing into this? So I just wanted to pause there because I really love that one. [00:41:28] DAVID: Great. And what this systems work and the systems mapping enables people to do is precisely to trace the consequences of people's well intended actions and how those ripple out through the rest of the system, one, making it harder for those parts of the system you're so frustrated by to do what they're trying to do. And as well, when. They start acting. You're very aware when another part of the system doesn't seem to be functioning well and how it impacts you as an organization. But it's much harder to be aware of how what you're doing impacts that other organization and what systems work does. Systems mapping work is it helps complete the circle and see the real cycles of interaction that are actually undermining everybody's abilities, most everybody's abilities, to make the contributions they want to make. Years ago, I was teaching some of this work and asked people to do an exercise and take a look at some why question they've had and whether they can use this idea of cycles and circles feedback to gain some further insight into it. And after about an hour or two, we were finishing up the exercise, this one guy came up to me, real excited, and he said, wow, I really saw something there. And to think I've been going in circles on this for years. And I thought to myself, actually, the problem isn't so much that you've been going in circles, it's that you haven't seen the circles that you've been going in. We can only create the circles we want if we first understand the circles that we're currently creating. [00:43:59] Patrick: Wow. We come to a simple definition of systems. We ask the why question. We convene diverse stakeholders. We get a shared direction and a shared understanding of current reality. We gain awareness of what our role is in the current reality. All of this is a part of mapping the system. So mapping the system is not just who are the players and the parts, but what are the pathways, the sort of neural pathways that are creating the results we're getting now, and how would we need to reorganize and redirect those parts of the system to behave differently for a different result. [00:44:45] DAVID: That's great. And I would add to neural pathways, because it's a great metaphor, is narratives. What are the stories that we've been telling ourselves and how do those stories undermine our own effectiveness? [00:45:08] Patrick: Yeah, right back to a leadership tenet. I love it. That's exactly right. And we believe those stories deeply. And even though some simple data actually contradicts our stories, we just believe them. [00:45:24] DAVID: So another way of approaching this kind of systems work is to think of it as narrative therapy at a collective level. [00:45:33] Patrick: Wow. [00:45:34] DAVID: What are the stories we've been telling ourselves that are actually keeping us stuck? And then what new stories do we need to tell ourselves that takes some courage, better future? [00:45:48] Patrick: That takes some courage, because if you are successful at convening diverse stakeholders, which, by the way, takes some gravitas, it's easy to say, well, let's convene stakeholders. But we're this little player in the game that nobody takes seriously, and we don't have the kind of legitimacy and credibility in the community to host those tables. Well, then we need to direct our influence maybe toward a relationship with someone who can. But in any case, if we're successful in convening those diverse stakeholders and we do what you're talking about, which is get honest and get a real picture and get a real understanding of our part in the problem. And that's very difficult and tricky for people because you can easily sit in a room and infer that, everybody in the room is pointing at you. Right. You're the part of the system that's like to have the honest conversations about what's really happening means we're all putting ourselves out there for a little bit of exposure and we feel like, oh, they're telling us we're the problem. Well, I've seen it happen where those kinds of things happen, but all the more so when you're really getting honest in these conversations and revealing what's really happening. [00:47:11] DAVID: Well, the nice thing to me about that is I'm very deliberate about creating a level playing field at the beginning. All of you are part of the problem. [00:47:26] Patrick: Yeah. [00:47:27] DAVID: And I'm not telling you that you're all part of the problem in order to shame you or blame you, but to empower you. [00:47:38] Patrick: Good. [00:47:39] DAVID: Because ultimately all of what you are doing individually and collectively is adding up to what you've currently got. And if you want to create something new, all of you are going to have to be thinking about your intentions, your beliefs and assumptions and your underlying sense and your underlying mission. [00:48:09] Patrick: There's a book from, I don't know, maybe 15 years ago now called Switch by the Heath Brothers. I think it's in that book. It's either in the book or I heard one of them say it at a keynote that made the statement that in order for something to change, someone somewhere has to start doing something differently. And I think what you're saying actually adds a layer to that. It's that all of us need to do something differently if the system is going to change. [00:48:41] DAVID: Right. And we can't wait for other people to make that's good the first step, that's good. And because we're all in it together, it makes it a little safer to say, oh, I can see my role in this current system well, where I'm hurting myself, not just hurting the rest of you. [00:49:08] Patrick: In your book, it became clear to me pretty soon, pretty early on, that there's intersection here with the Collective Impact Model and the conditions needed for collective impact, the shared measurement, the common agenda. This part we're talking about now is the mutually reinforcing accountability and those kinds of things. How are you finding the collective impact? Do you use that model? And for those that don't know, the model is now famously known for having come out of a concept by Kanye and Kramer out of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, where they talked about this idea of multiple sectors coming together to address a social issue or problem. Are you using that model formally in the systems change work? Or is the Collective Impact model simply a restated version of systems change that you were already using? [00:50:14] DAVID: Well, I would say two things about that. One is that at least initially, my memory of Collective Impact is that it stated a set of critical success factors. It was a static model, it wasn't a dynamic model. It didn't say here is the change process that you use to address those critical success factors and to make them happen. I think that's changed over the years. How would you see that? Patrick? [00:50:55] Patrick: I didn't see it that way. I did see it as more dynamic because basically and they would call it strategy, I mean they would call it a shared strategy. But yes, the dynamic piece of it as they described it is what they called cascading communications or the feedback loop that does keep things going and there is evaluation in there. Where are we? How are we doing? You don't just convene them once and say hey, we convene now. Let's all go do better at what we do. I'd have to look at it more closely, but I see it as more dynamic than maybe what you're describing and maybe that depends on who's implementing it could. [00:51:43] DAVID: And I do think their writing evolved. [00:51:47] Patrick: Yeah, they've had several iterations. [00:51:50] DAVID: They certainly started filling in a lot more. That's right to me. So first of all, totally agree about the need for continuous communications and continuous learning, the importance of metrics and being very careful about those metrics because as I say, filling shelter beds is not going to get you to end homelessness one. When it comes to shared agenda, I think that my work focuses more on the current reality piece. There's also again, that importance of shared direction. But I spend a lot of time on developing this shared understanding of why we are where we are. In fact, the first point of leverage in my experience to change any system is to help the system be aware of where it is and how it got there. Awareness itself is a motivator for change because it is in that awareness that we see how we are unwittingly contributing to the very problems we're trying to solve. We all are. And it also helps us be much wiser about where the leverage is for change. But when people say, well, when do we get to the solutions? When do we get to the solutions? I always say the first solution is to deepen your understanding, your shared understanding of why we are where we are. And then the other one where I would double click is the mutually reinforcing activities. And if I remember early on in the literature, trust was a big issue. And if I'm going to change, are other people going to change or they have to change in order for me to change, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And this particular way of understanding reality does help everybody see how they're part of the problem as well as part of the solution. And it builds trust because that vulnerability is reflected back to everybody. When I did work around homelessness, I was not only calling out, hopefully in a healthy way, the shelters and how they, particularly the ones who said they wanted to end homelessness, were contributing to their own problem, but also how the donors were contributing to the problem, as well as the elected officials and so on. So it's very important to have trust emerge from that shared sense of how we got to where we are and not just what we want to accomplish. [00:55:33] Patrick: Boy, we're getting to this part in the conversation where there are like eight different branches. We could go down and really unpack some stuff, but I'll land on a couple of things that are striking me right now. One is just what you're talking about in terms of the donor. I would refer back to Robert Lupton's toxic charity. He says something to the effect of give once and you create appreciation. Give twice and you create anticipation. Give three times and you create expectation. Give four times, you create dependence. Give five times, you create entitlement. And I know that somewhat sounds like an indictment on the beneficiary of services. It's not really intended to be. It's just that we create that culture, though, that perpetuating culture with that to the point where everyone feels like, well, I can't believe they're not supporting more shelters, right? I can't believe that all of society is saying that because it's become this expectation, like we're entitled to homeless people are entitled to shelters, for crying out loud. So again, it's not a perfect analogy, but that just came back to mind in terms of perpetuating. The other thing that came to my mind as you were talking about changing, and first we have to be aware of the system. I thought about in psychology and in counseling and in coaching. We look at Prochaska's five or six stages of change. And if that title doesn't resonate with people, you will remember this, probably many people will. It starts with pre contemplation, then it moves to contemplation, then preparation, then action, and then maintenance. So in the pre contemplation stage, people don't even know they need to change, or they are in denial of needing change. They're not even thinking about changing because they don't think anything's wrong, at least with them, as you put it. Then you get to contemplation where it's like, yeah, maybe I can kind of see this. They get to that place where you talk about where, yeah, this is clear to me now. A light has been shined, and I do see the need for change, and I see the benefit for change. I see the possibilities. So I'm in contemplation stage again. This is an executive coaching model. Then you move to preparation. All right? So I'm going to start figuring out how we're going to make this change. And then you get to the fourth of the five phases, which is action. And the reason this model came to me is you just said people want to jump straight to the solutions. The psychology research would say that's the Fourth of five phases is getting to the solution. There's a lot of this contemplation and understanding and awareness and preparing for the change before we can actually say, all right, pull the levers, let's go. And then you move into maintenance mode where let's make sure we don't revert, let's make sure this is sustainable. Does that resonate with you? As you were saying it? I'm like again, once again, the system and the individual really operate very much the same in terms of the psychology of it. [00:58:59] DAVID: Yeah, I think there's a lot of validity to that. 90% of my work is in everything I've talked about so far and I haven't talked about solutions. [00:59:14] Patrick: Right. [00:59:17] DAVID: And it's very hard. It's hard to pull oneself back from just being action oriented and wanting to get it done or feeling like we need to show results to our donors or the people who voted us in or whatever it is. On the one hand, I want to say that and on the other hand, I don't want people to get the false assumption that systems thinking is just about the long term, because I think that that's where people often go with this. It's sort of like, well, that's nice, but I can't afford to be dealing with the long term or even thinking about the long term because of these pressures that I'm under. And I want people to understand that systems thinking is about also understanding and dealing with the short term, but dealing with it within the context of the long term, that's very different. And I like to point out to people the difference between a quick fix and a small success. So quick fix is that bandaid you put on to staunch the bleeding. Or it could be just the one more shelter that we're going to build or the one more patient we're going to see in the Er. Whatever it is, a small success would be saying, okay, well, if we want to start moving to a model that really addresses the social determinants of health, or if we really want to move to a housing first model, or something that we ourselves know is going to be more sustainable and more in line with a longer term sense of mission that we might have. I don't mean to judge it. If you want to be in the business of just emergency health care, sure. But if you want to be in the business of helping people in a community have better access to health over time, then it's a different mission, as you said, then you need to be thinking about the long term. And what do we need to do in the short term that gives us the credibility, the additional funding, the momentum, the morale to keep going? And the important thing to recognize is those small successes often have very different metrics than what we want to accomplish in the long term. They often are more around building new relationships, building new capacities, helping people think differently, helping people converse differently with each other, engaging a stakeholder that we previously were reluctant uncomfortable to engage. Those are small successes. Those need to be identified, measured against, validated and they will all serve the longer term metrics and outcomes and metrics that we are dedicating ourselves to accomplishing. But we then also need it behooves us to set the expectations with our funders about what we can deliver in the short term. And don't be looking for 1000 units of affordable housing in the next two years or whatever it is you're boxing yourself in. Look for a new set of relationships, a new set of conversations, a new set of stakeholders, et cetera. Those are the small successes. [01:04:19] Patrick: That differentiation between a quick fix and a small success or an early success even. What a great distinction. I wish I'd have thought of this. The other day I was with a group who was talking about domestic violence and the idea that one of their indicators or outcomes was significantly reduce the number of incidents of intimate partner violence in the state. And one of the leaders said that's 100 year change. Think about this issue, that's 100 year change. And so had this conversation about how daunting that was but then said well yeah, but when's the best time to plant an oak tree? At some point you got to plant some seeds. The new relationships, the new capacities, the new conversations, the engagements and things. So I really love that analogy. I'm also struck I was at a rural summit recently where we were talking about early childhood and we had some of the government officials there and things and I was facilitating a panel and I asked the question. I said we just saw all this data about the linkage between early childhood success and economic development. The workforce, the business community, we've seen it for years. There's enough longitudinal research now around early childhood success that ought to convince just about anybody that if we want to really resolve any workforce issues we start there. But when you say that the number one driver of the workforce economy 15 years from now is our early childhood work today people say well that doesn't sell. Sorry, that just doesn't sell. We got new businesses coming up right now that we can't get people to pass a drug test to come work for us. Yes, I know and you're still going to be saying that 20 years from now if we don't start getting at some of these systems. But your distinction between quick fixes and small successes might be the antidote for that paralyzation because we can frame small successes that we can sell as leading us toward a longer term that then people are a little more receptive to if they are seeing that small success, that short term. It's old program outcome measurement, right? You got immediate outcomes, intermediate outcomes, long term outcomes. We want our kids to graduate and go be productive members of society. But let's start by getting them at third grade reading. Let's start by improving over the next nine weeks. Let's get their grade point average up a point, right? Let's teach them some new skills today, knowing that those things are coming down the road and it's hard. We get paralyzed when we just think about that long term. It's so far out there, so nebulous. So. I love that. Help. That's really a huge tip. [01:07:21] DAVID: Oh, great. I also think that the metaphor of addiction helps with a lot of social policy questions that we can unwittingly become addicted to quick fixes and therefore undermine our ability to implement the long term solution. Now, I'm not saying that you can or maybe even should go cold turkey and just say we're only going to do the long term and we will ignore the short term because that usually doesn't work either. But I think if we understand that there's a difference between doing something in the short term to support the long term or doing something in the short term that delays the pain but doesn't. [01:08:25] Patrick: Address, in fact undermines the source of. [01:08:27] DAVID: It, undermines it, then we might think differently about how to manage those trade offs. [01:08:34] Patrick: So good. Well, you're talking about hard stuff here, David. But I do appreciate I mean, I've learned a lot on this. You've really inspired me on several things, and I hope that our listeners would listen to this episode and say, okay, yeah, I think I get it. I'm not incapable of thinking like this. It might need some guidance, might need some disciplines and some new habits and things of how we go about everything from strategic planning to everything else. But, yeah, for me, this episode has made this more tangible. So I really do appreciate it. And I know that we haven't even scratched the surface on this stuff, and that's okay. We're a tad overtime on this episode, though, so I will start to wind it down and shift gears a little bit with you, David. There's a couple of questions I like to ask all my guests because this is a show about leadership. Who's a leader in your life? Who comes to mind if I say, David, who's someone in your life that has greatly impacted your point of view on leadership today? Who would that be and why? [01:09:44] DAVID: I think Martin Luther King comes to mind for the reason that as hard as he fought for the rights of one minority group, I believe he always understood the impact on the larger system, the United States, of continuing to repress African Americans. That it cut into our souls, that it cut into our collective resources. And as committed he was to African Americans, I think he really was committed to the health of America and the larger system. And I think that a leader, an effective leader needs to be thinking about that larger system. [01:10:50] Patrick: Well, no surprise that you would pick someone who looked at things at a systemic level and you might be getting into the final question here is why? I kind of just cut you off because I didn't want to steal the thunder. But my last question is, if you then had a megaphone at the top of a mountain to talk to all the leaders of the world and share with them what you believe is the number one most critical tenet of leadership, that 15 2nd sound bite. What would that be? [01:11:21] DAVID: It's both inside and outside. It's both looking out at the world to see what needs changing and inside to see what inspires you and what you need to change in order to live up to your own ideals. [01:11:41] Patrick: Wow, man, that's good stuff. And that's consistent with everything you've written about and taught people and share with the world. I really do appreciate it, David. I'm really grateful. Bridgewaypartners.com is the website that everyone needs to go to, is that right, David? [01:11:59] DAVID: That's correct. [01:12:00] Patrick: And that will, that will give you much more insight into the work that their firm is doing. Reach out to them if you are seriously thinking about, boy, this is exactly what we need in our organization, in our community. I'm guessing, David, that when you say systems change, there's organizational systems change too. This isn't just the social change of what a community or society is doing. There are systems inside our organization. We call it culture, it's the way we do things. But systems of how we recruit, develop our talent, how we leverage our boards, how we set up our finances, our mindset toward innovation and risk, all of the organizational systems that have us experiencing exactly what we're experiencing today. And if we want to grow as an organization, let alone just looking at the whole societal issue, that systems thinking. Let me ask you this. Your book does deal with the social change aspect of it, but would you say that the tenets and the principles of systems thinking that are in your book and that we've talked about today are really they apply to both the organizational systems and the societal systems in terms of its model? [01:13:24] DAVID: Absolutely, yeah. Yes. And there are cases in the book of both. And one of the, I think ones that stands out because it relates to a systems principle is if you want to optimize the performance of a system, including the level of an organization, and optimize the performance of an organization, you have to optimize the relationships among the parts, not each part separately. And our metrics, our reward systems, et cetera, tend to be oriented toward how do we optimize each part under the assumption if we optimize each part, we'll optimize the whole. But a lot of my work is about improving relationships among different parts of an organization so that collectively, the organization can be more effective in accomplishing what all those different parts want to accomplish. [01:14:30] Patrick: Yeah. Good. Well again. The book is Systems Thinking for Social Change a Practical Guide to Solving complex problems, avoiding unintended consequences, and achieving lasting results. David, thanks again for very, very generous and thoughtful and deep with your content and your wisdom today. Thanks for what you're doing in the world and for carving out a little space for us here at the Leadership Window. We're really grateful for it. [01:14:59] DAVID: And thank you as well, Patrick. It's been a pleasure to be on with you. [01:15:03] Patrick: I appreciate it. Folks, you know what to go do from here, right? Go lead next week. We normally air every other week, but we are airing again next week with an employee engagement expert from the Netherlands. His name is Paul Turwall. You won't want to miss this one to talk about some organizational culture as we wrap up the year. Lead on, folks. Close.

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