The disappointment of systems approach LO20719

Carol Sager (
Sun, 21 Feb 1999 17:17:04 -0500

Replying to LO20685 --

Joey Chan wrote

>I have read the current issue of The Economist(13th Feb) and there is a
>new book "Rescuing Prometheus" talking about the effectiveness of the
>systems approach. ...snip... However, the review had pointed out the
>disappointment of the systems approach in applying to social problems
>such as poverty, healthcare and crime. ..

Roy Benford wrote

> .. a major issue with systems thinking in the social area is that of
>defining boundaries...Existing power structures will try to inforce
>boundaries to preserve their power...The redrawing of boundaries is
>likely to be a slow process as power is re-distributed in society.
>Perhaps, the observer is expecting bigger and quicker improvements in the
>area of social problems and not observing the slower pace of change.

Building on what's been said and adding to it, I've attached parts of an
interview I did with Ronald A. Heifetz (RAH), Director of the leadership
education project at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government about
his concept of "Leadership without easy answers." Your thoughts?

Critical Linkages II Newsletter (CLIIN) -What's wrong with looking for
leadership with easy answers?

RAH - ...... Crime, a failing educational system, drug abuse, the deficit
are not simple problems to fix. When we say - cut the deficit but don't
raise my taxes - we need leaders who will point out the inconsistencies
and engage us in facing the challenge. Looking for leaders with easy
answers is too much of a customer mindset.

CLIIN - Too much of a customer mind set...?

RAH - We're confusing the role of customer with citizen. The market works
with a "please me" attitude. If one company doesn't give me what I want,
another one will. The customer rules. But, in the role of citizen, the
"please me attitude" is the wrong attitude. Instead of looking for
leaders who just please us, we ought to look for leaders who will help us
understand what our contributions to change should be.... It's a good
account wherever you go; to recognize that everyone serves somebody; to
serve others the best way you can; and that everyone is responsible for
their own work. But having a customer mind set is not the same as being an
institutional citizen.

CLIIN - Please discuss the distinction you make between technical and
adaptive problems.

RAH - Technical problems are routine problems. A patient is ill and goes
to the doctor. The Doctor correctly diagnoses the problem, prescribes the
right medication, and in two days the patient can return to his normal
routine. ...snip...... The doctor has done what we expect leaders to do -
provide direction, protection, and restoration of order.

Adaptive problems are not this straight-forward. No adequate answer has
been found for maintaining industrial competitiveness, failing schools,
drug abuse, ethnic strife and many other of our current problems. Our
usual repertoire of responses simply do not work, which increases the
stress caused by these issues. Solving adaptive problems requires people
to look at things in a different way and develop new habits of behavior.
These adjustments are often painful. With adaptive problems, leaders need
to ask questions and engage people in facing the challenge rather than try
to provide a quick solution.

CLIIN - Can people be motivated to accept these challenges and endure the

RAH - It happens all the time. At the extreme, people volunteer to get

CLIIN - Do we need a war or major crisis to provide the motivation to

RAH - We face adaptive challenges all the time. Every time we face a
conflict among competing values, or encounter a gap between our shared
values and the way we live, we face the need to learn new ways. We have
had profound changes in society over the last 30 years in the role and
opportunities for women and minorities. We have seen changes even in our
habits of smoking cigarettes. We still have a long way to go, but people
do not learn fast. Motivating people to deal with adaptive problems
involves caring about the values people hold precious - for which they'll
take pain and sustain loss. People are willing to care if you show them
that there are real chances of success. If they think it's pointless it


CLIIN - What are the tasks of leadership in the context of adaptive

*Identify the adaptive challenge -- the gap between aspirations and
*Regulate the level of stress. This is more than devising and
implementing a plan of action. It develops from information about the
capacity of people to engage the issues and learn.
*Keep attention focused on relevant issues and not on stress- reducing
distractions such as holding on to past assumptions, blaming, denying the
problem, or finding a diversionary issue.
*Devise a strategy to shift responsibility for the problem to the primary
stakeholders. Give the work back to the people at a rate they can stand.
In this way, you help those closest to the problem increase their response
ability for handling the problem.
*Give cover to those who ask the hard questions and provoke distress.
They are often the catalysts for rethinking difficult issues.


"Leadership Without Easy Answers." THE CRITICAL LINKAGES II NEWSLETTER.
Volume II: 3 (May/June 1994)

Carol Sager, Sager Educational Enterprises Critical Linkages II Newsletter
21 Wallis Road,Chestnut Hill, MA 02467 V.(617)469-9644; Fax(same)-9639

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