Years ago, while commiserating about limited access to higher education for low-wealth students, a colleague offered a thought: “Every system is perfectly designed to deliver the outcomes it delivers.”
If you think on that for just a moment…(go ahead, do it!)…it’s both painfully obvious and painfully…well…painful. But, for anyone working to change the outcomes that are important to them in education, politics, justice, or otherwise, this simple statement tells us where our efforts must be directed: the systems that we have, advertently or inadvertently, designed to underperform (or to perform exceptionally toward outcomes we never intended).
Under this premise, the school system that is struggling with dropouts is perfectly designed to generate those dropouts.
The justice system that incarcerates men of color at dramatically higher rates than anyone else is perfectly designed to incarcerate men of color.
The political system that generates corruption, gridlock, and weak candidates is perfectly designed to do just that.
System performance is not the sum of its individual elements. It is the interrelated (systemic) performance of its elements. Systems get misaligned because we build and invest (or disinvest) in them element by element often over long periods of time, and amidst shifting values and visions. And, the more we address individual elements in isolation the more likely we are to create systemic dissonance (the type of boiling-frog dissonance we actually grow to accept).
Within an organizational system, for example, perhaps we have rewritten our values statement, but our organizational structure is out-of-date or even arbitrary. We revisit our investments (budget, people, etc.), but align them with our organizational structure rather than our strategy (this is my new definition of bureaucracy, by the way). We clarify and document our desired outcomes, but we maintain old strategies that have lost relevance in a changing environment. We improve our product or service delivery, but never invest in our human capital pipeline to support and sustain it.
When we see systemic failure, we cannot blame the system without owning our role in it. We cannot claim that our part of the system is working, and it’s everyone else’s that’s broken. We cannot do fragmented and narrow work and believe it will add up to a healthy system. It won’t.
If we are going to create the system that is perfectly designed to deliver the outcomes we actually want, we need to design, invest, and lead systemically.