by Shawn C. Gay
El Paso, Texas

Governing an organization, a city, a state or a nation is what is known as a Wicked Problem. This term doesn’t mean it’s an evil activity, but rather it is wicked in the sense of being a really nasty, complex problem with no obvious best solution. Wicked problems often involve contradictory components, complex feedback, incomplete theoretical descriptions and constantly changing requirements.

While there isn’t a textbook approach that is guaranteed to solve Wicked Problems, we certainly know from experience what doesn’t work. Treating society as a collection of independent interests, groups or departments always seems to lead to imbalance, inefficiency and system pathologies of one sort or other. Thankfully, there is a new idea proving to be very helpful for wicked problems. It is called Systems Thinking.

Kurt Ehlert, MD, wrote an article about how Systems Thinking can revolutionize the field of medicine. In this article, he has a great diagram that shows how the old cause-and-effect, event-oriented thought model misses the important feedback loops that Systems Thinking uses. Where old thought models break systems into individual components and largely make policies to deal with individual components, Systems Thinking tries to address systems in a more holistic fashion.

Image credit: Kurt Ehlert, MD, CPE

For another perspective, here is a brilliant and short video by BEE Environmental Communication that illustrates Systems Thinking and how it relates a topic we can all relate to: Love. Just like we learn skills to make love grow in our own lives, we can learn similar skills to help manage complex systems. Skills like:

  • Take time to understand the system.
  • Use meaningful, truthful language.
  • Favor quality over quantity.
  • Acknowledge and learn from mistakes.
  • Aim for the good of the whole.

So, Systems Thinking is a big paradigm shift compared to how we currently govern our communities, but it just might be the key to finding much better solutions. Share this idea with your fellow citizens and public officials and maybe we’ll start to see improvements at all levels of governance.

Disclaimer: Progressive Views and El Paso Could submissions represent individual perspectives and do not necessarily represent official positions of the Green Party.

One thought on “Progressive Views: Systems Thinking is Key to Changing Government

  1. We have been hardwired to compartmentalize our view of the world. And that has transferred to how we solve problems. And, yes, even in our schools, we take courses on different subjects which further enforces that outlook. In my later years of teaching, wherever possible, I began creating units that combined science, art, music, social studies, math, history and more. Once I began to think that way, I was overwhelmed with having almost too much to teach. That’s probably how compartmentalizing May have begun in the first place. But the unit lessons made more sense and my elementary students learned so much. Me, too! I look forward to using systems thinking as a new way of looking for solutions to problems with governance.

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