Generating ideas, connections, and action

Follow up on Systems Thinking Webinar: Guest Blog Post by Eric Stiens


Author: Eric Stiens, MSW, Research Associate, Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity

Note: This is a follow up article for the recent webinar on Systems Thinking and Racial Justice, featuring Professor john powell

First off, we would like to apologize for getting this blog out so late. Projects and summer vacations have all intervened. We also wanted to apologize for some of the technical difficulties with audio and video in the webinar – we promise to have those worked out ahead of time for our next webinar! Thanks for sticking with us through the glitches and thanks again to all the folks at LLC for the opportunity.

I wanted to quickly address some of the feedback we got on the webinar and also offer a few other tidbits about systems thinking, systems science, and our work for racial justice.


More Examples


One of the most common requests we get in doing this work (and this webinar was no exception) is “more examples”. But, we want to turn the question around. What do you think are some good examples of places where organizations and changemakers have successfully “thought systemically”? I understand the desire for real-world examples that aren’t just a bunch of words to think about and learn from, but I am also wary of one organization or set of organizations having a monopoly on determining what is or isn’t “systems work” in our field. This is an emerging practice and a way of approaching the world, not just a set of best practices.  The flip side of the question works as well, if you can give examples of work that would have benefited from more (or any!) thinking in systems along the way.


Where’s the white privilege?

One thing we heard after this presentation and have heard in the past is that a focus on structures somehow lets whites off the hook and moves the discussion away from white privilege. I don’t believe this is true. On the contrary, I think that a structural level view widens our understanding of white privilege to include events distant in time, the ways we organize our cities, the questions the get asked and the questions that don’t.  It also invites us to consider racism not as a static event that occurs at one moment but a historical process that is continually creating the meaning of race and whiteness itself. It is a systems view that brings us to Tim Wise’s conclusion that “White privilege…is redundant.”  


Systems Science

Our field has made great strides incorporating systems thinking insights into our work around racial justice – as all the great work done around structural racism, opportunity, and multi-dimensional work over the past decade shows. But, we have not yet begun to incorporate systems science into our work at the rigorous (and vigorous) level we should.


What I mean by this is that we are not yet using formal methods of systems modeling very widely. The advantages of formal modeling are two-fold. First, it allows one to test interventions and develop theories of change in a simulated environment. Second, it forces us to make all of our assumptions about how a system is functioning very explicit. This explicitness allows us to have much richer and more precise discussions about where we agree and disagree. It can also, when used well, help us transcend the power dynamics – funder/grantee, service provider/client, director/staff member – that inhibit honest communication.


Time Horizons

We need to expand our time horizons when we are designing programs and when we are evaluating them. While we may use systems language in our grant applications or our evaluation criteria, our theories of change still tend to implicitly assume that change is linear (and that issues can be tackled in isolation). We expect to see small gains quickly and then scale programs up. But this is not the way complex systems (usually) change. They remain stable for long periods of time and then change quickly. I welcome the movement towards evidence-based practice and effective philanthropy – but effectiveness cannot always be measured with a post-test and the best evidence is not always found in p-values.  Incidentally, expanding your time horizon when defining a problem can be an essential tool as well! One of the reasons we have such a history of short-term fixes that turn out to exacerbate the problem they were intended to fix is because of short time horizons in our understanding problems/solutions.

Our policies must be flexible and self-correcting

Donella Meadows, one of our great systems thinkers, writes that:

“Especially where there are great uncertainties, the best policies not only contain feedback loops, but meta-feedback loops–loops that alter, correct, and expand loops. These are policies that design learning into the management process.” (Dancing with Systems)

We know that complex systems are unknowable.  We can’t control a complex system, we can only shape it. We will never to be able to design policies, interventions, and programs that will work perfectly. What we can design is more nimble and responsive programs. At the very least, we need to be building responsiveness and two-way feedback into all of our programs. At the best, we need to be building policies that can self-correct in a wide variety of conditions.


Win-Win Solutions

I think we often talk about win-win solutions a little too blithely in the policy analysis field, as if there are programs that will please all stakeholders all of the time, if only we can just find them. There is no doubt, that from the vantage point of access to decision making power, material wealth, etc some people are going to “lose”. But our traditional understanding that moral goods must exist in tension with pragmatic goods (the old equity vs. efficiency debate) is wrong.

It is my belief that in order to build institutions and structures that will serve us over the next century of our life on this planet, when the world is finally coming to grips with limits to growth and facing a possible global crisis together in climate change, that the solutions which will pragmatically address these issues will be both morally good and socially just. The solutions which bring about equity and draw us into deeper connections with one another will be the only sustainable solutions.

A systems approach that doesn’t bring us into deeper relationship with each other and the entire web of life is not an approach I want any part of. Which leaves us at love. Conscious love, transformative love, the love that is nothing but the simple recognition of the (to paraphrase James Baldwin) exceedingly inconvenient fact that we are a part of each other. Can we name this love in our board meetings? In our grant proposals? In our deep agreements and scathing rebuttals? I think we can. I think we must.


Transforming Race Conference 2012

Lastly, I would be amiss if I didn’t mention our Call for Proposals for our conference in 2012. We are focusing on bold and creative visions for the future and the ways the seeds of those visions are being planted now. Please check out or call for session proposals, share with your networks, and get back to use with your big ideas.


Please let us know what projects you are working or have worked on in the past that you think could have (or did) benefit from a systems approach, look for our next webinar on this topic in the fall sometime, and feel free to email me at Eric Stiens ( if you want to talk further about this work.


More Resources for Reflection


Systems Thinking and Race: A Primer
Stephen Menendian and Caitlin Watt

Systems Thinking, Evaluation and Racial Justice
john powell

Places to Intervene in a System
Donella Meadows

Criteria for Philanthropy at Its Best

[Eric Stiens is a research associate at the Kirwan Institute who thinks about systems, the future, and love].