Generating ideas, connections, and action

Leading and evaluating in a world of systems

Advice from Donella Meadows on how to lead in a world of systems from her book Thinking in Systems: A Primer 1. Get the beat of the system 2. Expose your mental models to the light of day 3. Use language with care and enrich it with systems concepts 4. Pay attention to what is important, not just what is quantifiable 5. Make feedback policies for feedback systems 6. Go for the good of the whole 7. Listen to the wisdom of the system 8. Locate responsibility in the system 9. Stay humble – stay a learner 10. Celebrate complexity 11. Expand time horizons 12. Defy the disciplines 13. Expand the boundary of caring 14. Don’t erode the goal of goodness This is good advice for those of us who fund, run, and evaluate leadership efforts that seek systems level or social change outcomes.

For those of you interested in systems change, I highly recommend the compilation of Donella Meadows writings in Thinking in Systems. This primer is the clearest explanation I've ever read about how systems work, why they fail, and what we can do about it. Has anyone else read this book? How has it been useful to you in thinking about your leadership work? As an evaluator there are several lessons I take away from this advice. It is important to work with partners/clients to examine their assumptions and develop greater clarity around why they believe what they do. One important evaluation role is to give people language for talking about their work in systems terms, otherwise they are likely to focus only on the most immediate outcomes and ignore longer-term impact. Quantitative methods work well for assessing short-term outcomes; they miss a lot when assessing long-term impact. Stories and case studies offer a much richer account of impact over time. By analyzing stories and case studies we can look for the turning points and consider what factors contributed to the shift that occurred. Even though we don’t always understand clearly what is happening and why, our continued curiosity will reveal deeper and deeper levels of meaning. Patience and attention over time will pay off in better learning.