Why Good Intentions Aren’t Enough

May 11, 2017

Even when our goal is to create positive change, we sometimes spend a lot of resources to accomplish little or even make things worse.

The world we live in is inherently complex, with linkages that are often difficult to see and understand. This is why it is important to incorporate a systems view when developing a strategy.

In David Stroh’s book, “Systems Thinking for Social Change,” he shares the story of a program that tried to address homelessness in the United States by building more housing units. Only, it didn’t solve the problem. After significant investment, homelessness had not gotten better in the area, it had actually increased!

Homelessness is a systemic problem with many causes that are complex and interconnected. In situations like this, simple solutions that don’t take a systems view into account often result in unintended negative consequences instead of durable change.

At Omidyar Network we use a systems thinking practice as we seek to understand and influence the complex systems in which we work — systems ranging from financial services in the developing world to early childhood education in the US.

The Omidyar Group’s System and Complexity Team explains why we use a systems practice: https://vimeo.com/174541762

Democracy Fund, another organization within The Omidyar Group, also strives to incorporate systems thinking into their work. In this article, Democracy Fund President Joe Goldman explains how systems mapping can be used as a tool to understand complex problems and open us up to creative solutions. He explains that “a systems map is different than a network map that describes how different individuals or organizations are connected to one another. Instead, a systems map describes the dynamic patterns (or feedback loops) that occur in a system, whether they are vicious or virtuous cycles of behavior and reaction.”

In a previous Friday Learning Note, I shared Omidyar Network’s “Learning for Impact Cycle” which begins with strategy development. As a former management consultant I have seen my share of strategies that all too often assume the world is mechanistic and fail to appreciate interconnections that ultimately determine success. Good strategy that is system informed requires different mindsets from those we have used in the past.

In the video above, The Omidyar Group’s Systems and Complexity Team shares four key mindsets needed to better engage with systems:

  1. Seek health, not “mission accomplished.”
  2. See patterns, not just problems.
  3. Unlock change. Don’t impose it.
  4. Plan to adapt. Don’t stay the course.

Having good intentions is an important first step. At Omidyar Network we have a vision that guides us toward societal health and well being. To complement this intention, it’s important for us to learn and analyze how we can best take action to solve complex problems — and that usually requires systems thinking. As a result we have struggled with the theoretical nature of our work, and labored to translate it into a methodology that is more practical.

For those interested in gaining a deeper understanding of what we have learned so far, I highly recommend signing up for the next +Acumen course, “Systems Practice: A Practical Approach to Move from Impossible to Impact.”




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