Thinking Like a System

Much is afoot across communities trying to arrange homeless and housing services into alignment with a coordinated access and common assessment approach. Maybe this work is happening because people think it is a good idea (it is) but I suspect the greater impetus for many communities is that it is a requirement of HUD (also true). Other communities are in the process of updating 10 Year Plans. Some are creating or re-establishing inter-agency councils or steering committees or work groups to improve system delivery.

So let’s take a moment to examine what it means to be thinking like a system. It is my contention that there are a lot of people that are really busy trying to work on their system without actually thinking like a system.

The greatest influences on how I examine and think about systems come from Ralph Stacey (his Complexity Matrix is nothing short of brilliant) and Brenda Zimmerman (her work on Sustaining Social Innovation is top notch).

It is Stacey’s contention that Complex Adaptive Systems:

Consist of a network of agents that interact with each other according to a set of rules that require them to examine and respond to each other’s behaviour to improve their behaviour and thus the behaviour of the system they comprise.

Aha! Let us think of homeless and housing service providers as the “network of agents”. First of all, as Stacey’s definition suggests, they have to interact with each other. In other words, they can’t just exist in isolation or a silo.

Second of all, there is a set of rules that are involved. Is that just coordinated access and common assessment? That is part of it, but not the whole story. I believe that communities should create sectors of service to more clearly define what is expected from each type of service delivery, what it aims to solve, how it completes the work, the indicators we should look at, and the outcomes we should expect.

Thirdly, Stacey’s definition requires these “agents” to “examine and respond to each other’s behaviour”. This requires critical analysis and an outward orientation to the work. We need to look what is happening around us to best understand how we should behave. Sometimes this requires evaluation from an external party.

Finally, the changes we make are not just about making the individual “agent” better – though that is part of it. It is about trying to improve the behaviour of the system as a whole. Collectivism trumps individualism in this instance.

In summary, the lessons I take away from Stacey’s work in thinking like a system:

  • service providers are connected to a network of other service providers
  • the connectivity of the service providers requires a set of rule (standards)
  • service providers have to reflect upon their own role and function and then put that into the context of how to respond to other service providers
  •  there is shared responsibility to improve the system as a whole instead of thinking it is just one person or one agency’s job

Zimmerman, in her brilliance, challenges us to think about the current state of affairs as we think about making changes happen. In thinking like a system, there is a great deal of wisdom that we can glean from Zimmerman when examining our starting point.

Consider an old growth forest. In the conservation phase of a forest we see big trees and a rich canopy. To me this is not unlike many communities that have been addressing homelessness. It has taken decades to get things established the way that they are. It is established. The big mature trees don’t let much sunlight penetrate the forest floor. The big mature trees consume most of the resources available. New growth is very difficult once the forest is well established. Not unlike mature service organizations that get the lion’s share of available funding and are so big that they eclipse new ways of doing things or organizations wishing to get started.

For decades we tried to put out forest fires as quickly as they started. Zimmerman reminds us that creative destruction isn’t a bad thing. Like a forest fire in an old growth forest – consider the likes of the giant sequoias – some species and new growth can’t occur unless there is considerable heat and some devastation of what was there before. Conservation in perpetuity is not in the best interest of a forest and it isn’t in the best interest of how we think about system either. I have no doubt that the 100 year old tree thinks it sucks to be burned to the ground (okay, so trees don’t think, but you know what I am getting at), but for the entire group of trees and all of the wildlife it supports, not to mention the offspring of the tree, it is a good thing. Housing and homeless systems exist to end homelessness, not to keep older established agencies in business just for the sake of keeping them in business or because they have always been there.

After a forest fire, the land is not limited by what was there before. New growth can start. It is a time of renewal and reorganization. There is no doubt that great opportunities exist below the surface. In thinking like a system we have the chance to also embrace renewal and reorganization. Why we want to do what we will do to end homelessness is not limited by what was there before. I am not suggesting that every organization has to cease operating. However, in the willingness to creatively destroy some ways of doing things they have released energy and resources that are now available for renewal.

The birth of new vegetation is a delightful sight after a forest fire has gone through. As we think like a system, we also need to celebrate new birth. Does every plant that starts to grow after a forest fire mature? Nope. There are natural forces that are at work that determine what not only survives, but thrives. A forest is never the same after the birth made possible through renewal. The forest does not exactly replicate what was there before. This is also important as we think like a system. We are not just trying to recreate what was there before and call it something different. It really has to be different.

So, as you go about working on coordinated access and common assessment, or as you go about updating your 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness, or as you go about working through your inter-agency councils or local steering committees ask yourselves whether you are truly thinking like a system. Are you examining the interconnectivity of the various agents and how that interconnectivity has to result in behaviour that positively impacts the system as a whole? Are you creating an environment where creative destruction is possible to allow for a new way of doing things?

Iain De Jong

About Iain De Jong