Systems change is so difficult because is the link between the past, present and future is tight and often invisible.
The term “system(s) change” is often used without a clear sense of what it means.
What is the system that needs to be changed and how is that system defined? These are two important questions that will shape the answers.
Systems are also affected by history and this ‘memory’ within a system is an important, yet often neglected part of understanding change.
Remembering where systems started is an important signal for where they can go.
Memory and Pathways
In complex systems the concept of ‘memory’ is represented partly by path dependence. Path dependencies are the patterns of activity that are entrenched within a system by past activity. To Illustrate, consider the first person to encounter a field of grasses with any possible route from one end to the other. That person will make their choice and create a pathway. The second person who arrives after the first has the same choices, yet already has a partial pathway laid out for them so they might take that. Soon, there is a clear, distinct pathway that has formed.
Despite this pathway the choices available to someone looking to cross the field haven’t changed at all; it only feels that way.
These initial path-defining choices might not be the most useful and unless we remember how they were made and what went into them, we may find ourselves unnecessarily bound by them.
Reflective practice can help us to remember our decisions and document our design choices. It helps us determine why we build the systems we do and what assumptions inform our designs.
At Cense, we use something called a Living History to document these decisions as part of a developmental evaluation. A Living History captures the decisions, activities, assumptions, and conditions that inform actions. Its utility is in helping us remember what was done and why. It helps to create a context for understanding the system that any program exists and assess the path dependencies.
A Living History is more than a diary — it’s a record to connect ideas with actions. It’s also a vehicle for remembering and allowing us to trace back what we do today to what we designed in the past.
By articulating the design of the system we can better determine what needs to change. Too often the focus of change might not be the ‘thing’ that is best reflective of the systems’ problems. Knowing what the system was designed to do allows us to assess what the system can do and then what it ought to do.
As W. Edwards Deming famously said “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.”
When we remember what went into our design, we can better understand our results.