Last night on CNN, Republican Congressman Trey Gowdy of South Carolina used the “s” word to describe the kind of change he wants to see in Washington, D.C., to end the recurring debt-default issue once and for all.
The “s” word he used was systemic.
“Systemic change,” Mr. Gowdy said, is the change he’d like to approve. But no one’s offered it yet, according to the congressman.
Hearing a Capitol Hill politician utter the word “systemic” surprised me. With all due respect to Mr. Gowdy, Washington logic doesn’t seem to favor systems thinking. This country has, after all, been on a collision course with fiscal disaster for quite some time, relying on short-term fixes that fail to resolve underlying, systemic problems in the long run.
I felt compelled this morning to answer Mr. Gowdy’s plea for systemic change by offering an apolitical, bipartisan response from a systems perspective. I turned to authors Annabel Beerel and Donella H. Meadows for help.
A system, according to Meadows’ 2008 book Thinking in Systems: A Primer, “is an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something.” A system, Meadows wrote, consists of elements, interconnections, and a function or purpose.
When a problem arises, many organizations nowadays typically hone in on the element that seems to be causing the problem and try to fix the element on its own as a separate entity. Isolating the troubled element, however, ignores all of its interconnections within the system. So changing one element in the system will—in some way—affect all of the other elements in the system too. When that happens, the function or purpose of the system will also change.
In the U.S., several elements linked to our government coffers have been altered in recent years, particularly along the lines of spending—spending of all sorts. Each element was altered in isolation with little to no consideration over how the changes made would affect each element’s relationship, or interconnection, with other elements of the system and the broad-scale implications that could surface. Now, after years of fiscal mismanagement, the system has inadvertently developed a function or purpose that’s seemingly bent on financially destroying the same people it was designed to protect—American taxpayers.
Concerning the debt issue, Capitol Hill needs to set aside politics and objectively identify the elements of the overall system that were changed during the past few years. They need to figure out how these elements were changed and analyze what happened as a result. Only then can a real, systemic intervention take place with regard to the debt issue.
To ensure the debt issue never rears its ugly head again, our government leaders should begin to take the forces of change—what Beerel labeled “new realities” in her 2009 book Leadership and Change Management—much more seriously.
Doing this, however, would require many politicians currently roaming Capitol Hill to stop weaving political myths of the sensationalistic, us-versus-them variety, which only serve to obscure new realities and thwart genuine attempts to solve problems.
“If we do not change in response to new realities but rather in favor of some fantasy of our imagination, this will not serve us in the long run,” Beerel wrote. “Good change aligns us with new realities; bad change does not. Good change keeps us relevant; bad change does not.”
So, Mr. Gowdy, while I applaud your request for systemic change concerning the debt-default issue, I would say that—with five days left before we hit the August 2nd deadline on this matter—it’s unrealistic to systemically fix this problem on such short notice. Systemic change, after all, isn’t a quick fix that can be applied and absorbed by a system in the course of a few days.
I would, however, advise you and your colleagues to become systemic leaders who look for patterns and relationships in the decisions you make; who think of possibilities before leaping to short-term solutions.
According to Beerel, systemic leaders understand the impact of new realities on stakeholders. They note the changing networks and relationships within a systems and understand the dynamics and intricacies of interconnectedness. They focus on enhancing the adaptive capacity of the system and understand the nature of tension and resistance to change.
“For systemic leaders, there is nothing more important, compelling or urgent than the existence of changing realities,” Beerel wrote, “and wrestling with what that implies for the healthy survival of a system or organization.”