Saturday, June 21, 2008

Our Educational System needs more "Systems Thinking"

In the past few weeks I have had numerous conversations with many people about the complexity of our educational system. At times I have been frustrated of not being able to correctly articulate, or communicate the importance of “Systems Thinking” in solving complex process/system problems.

"Everything is simpler than you think and at the same time more complex than you imagine."
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

With every problem comes an opportunity. I can think of no better example that can relate the importance of “Systems Thinking”
than those that plague our educational systems.

When complex processes/systems fail, traditional ways of thinking and managing simply will not correct the problem. You need to be able to identify these types of failures and address them accordingly.


I have found in my work that identifying complex system failures can be accomplished by recognizing the following characteristics:

· The longer they are left unattended, the more vast their effects (Education System).
· Costs always surpasses what has been budgeted to correct the situation ($ always an issue).
· As effects emerge, unknown interdependencies rise to the top like a bad penny.
· The more that problems come into focus, the more complex they become.
· Past experience with simple systems and band aide solutions no longer apply.
· Root causes and their effects are impossible to identify, track and control (when left unattended for so long).

These characteristics identify the most troubling realization about complex educational systemic problems: They are inherently uncontrollable. They cannot be understood completely either before or even while they are happening; therefore, prediction and control are impossible. Conventional means of managing and problem solving will not work.

As I have said in many posts, without using “systems thinking” and involving all groups (interdependencies) from beginning to end you will only continue to band aid (tamper) the system.

I guess if I just plant a bulb and do nothing else, I may get a beautiful flower on it's own, but I bet it will be eventually surrounded by weeds and strangle the little fella.

It took take a systemic concentrated effort by members of the appropriate educational departments actively working together to solve the problems.

Conventional reporting structures and old-style power relations have also contributed to complex system failures. A certain amount of honesty and partnership must take place among process owners when addressing complex system problems.

Old trends, past practices, and inappropriate problem solving methods (i.e. tampering) make it impossible to understand the failures of complex educational processes/systems.


We have created an environment of complex processes/systems that require new methodologies to unravel existing entangled interdependencies. In order to reverse the trend, complex systems require unity, participation, and honesty to data, information and internal partnerships. These types of system problems require us to dissolve our past practices of hierarchies, boundaries, internal competition, conflicting management objectives and silence out of fear.

The failure of any complex educational process/system can’t be adequately addressed through departmental or grade level organizational structures or by a few internal/external consultants injecting their expertise into the system. Only those who work within the system know its inner workings. They are the only ones who know how to work around the systems when they fail.

Thus, implementing solutions to system wide or cross-functional grade processes requires test cases that secure the knowledge and expertise throughout the entire system/process (this may also include experts outside the traditional boundaries of the organization). Complex system problems like provisioning require unmatched levels of participation just to understand what is going on in the process.

It is vital that educational leaders provide the focus for implementing a process that identifies the members required for developing solutions to critical student affecting processes.

Educational and Academic Administrators need to develop a new mindset for addressing complex process/system problems. Margaret Wheately of the Berkana Institute suggests the following:

· Engage the whole system. Only participation can save you.
· Continuously keep asking, “Who else should be involved?”
· Create abundant information and circulate it through existing and new channels (dedicated Web sites or Intranets).
· Develop simple reporting systems that can generate information quickly and broadcast it easily.
· Develop quality relationships as a top priority. Trust is the greatest asset.
· Support collaboration. Competition destroys capacity.
· Demolish boundaries and territories. Push for openness everywhere.
· Focus on creating new, streamlined processes/systems. There is no going back.

I would like to add one more, “Don’t force change, and rather create the conditions for change to take place.” I have often heard, ‘what we need around here are leaders who will drive change.”

Leaders cannot drive change by themselves, just as I can’t stand on my deck next and order my garden to grow three inches every day. However, if I create an environment where the conditions are correct and I take an “active” part in nurturing it, there stands a pretty good chance that growth and change will happen in a predictable time frame.

Why? My garden needs a plan (includes the proper times, with milestones, etc…), it needs a method ( How) by which to cultivate the soil, prevent weeds, assure water and sunlight, fertilize at the appropriate times and keep the vermin (aka - doubters) away.

I guess if I just plant a bulb and do nothing else, I may get a beautiful flower on it's own, but I bet it will be eventually surrounded by weeds and strangle the little fella.

When facing complex educational process/system problems, administrative leaders need to create the conditions for the appropriate groups to come together that will identify the system interdependencies. Boundaries need to be removed and hierarchies mean nothing. Surrender control and create partnerships of shared responsibility. Abolish internal competition, and support people in developing system wide solutions and contingencies that will ensure student "Dreams" for the present and the future become a reality

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