Systems Thinking 101

By J. Kim Wright

This is an excerpt of Kim Wright’s upcoming book, Lawyers as Changemakers, to be published by the American Bar Association and expected out in late 2015.

“Every day 75,000 people die of starvation despite the fact that we have plenty of food for everyone. Our distribution system, our nations, all the different kind of separateness blocks the whole thing. … Simply because we’re badly organized, we not taking care of it.”

— Buckminster Fuller

If we’re going to change the legal system or our larger systems, it is helpful to know something about systems theory and systems thinking.

I remember when I first started hearing about Systems Thinking, it was some mysterious topic that I couldn’t quite get.  The reason I couldn’t quite get it was similar to the adage that fish can’t get they are swimming in water.   I think I was a systems thinker from a very early age and it was invisible to me.  Didn’t everyone think that way?  Well, actually, no, they don’t, but I didn’t know that, then.

My shorthand description of systems thinking is now this:  everything is connected to everything else.  We live in an interconnected, interdependent universe.  

A systems thinker sees how things are connected and influence each other. For example, in the human body, we have many nested systems: respiratory, circulatory, digestive, etc.  Each can be studied separately, but they are interrelated and affect each other.  Recently I had a bad case of the flu.  As I lay in misery, it became clear to me that my whole body was sick, not just one part.  This body also exists in relationship to others (some of whom passed on the virus).  
Wikipedia uses a few more words to say it:

Systems thinking is the process of understanding how things, regarded as systems, influence one another within a whole. In nature, systems thinking examples include ecosystems in which various elements such as air, water, movement, plants, and animals work together to survive or perish. In organizations, systems consist of people, structures, and processes that work together to make an organization "healthy" or "unhealthy". Systems thinking has roots in the General System Theory that was advanced by Ludwig von Bertalanffy in the 1940s and furthered by Ross Ashby in the 1950s. The field was further developed by Jay Forrester and members of the Society for Organizational Learning at MIT which culminated in the popular book The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge which defined Systems thinking as the capstone for true Organizational learning.[2]
There are a few stories that help to ground our ideas about  Systems Thinking.  This is a well-known one, adapted from WorldChanging 101 by David Lamotte:

One day a woman was taking a walk. She heard a splashing sound and turned to see a baby floating down the river. It was thrashing and trying to breathe and clearly in danger. She plunged into the cold river and got the baby. She brought it to the bank and tried to warm and comfort it while it choked out water and cried.

Then she heard another splash and turned around to see another baby in the river. She set the first baby down on and dove back into the water. She hadn’t even made it back to the shore when a third baby came floating downstream. This time, though, someone else was coming along the path, so she shouted out for him to come help.

The woman informed the man what was happening, and along came another baby. The man started calling friends to bring blankets, formula, and whatever else they could think of. They continued to pull babies from the river.

Soon, more people came to help. The babies kept coming. Eventually they started raising money and obtained their 501c3 tax exempt status. They had a volunteer crew and a long-term plan for feeding and housing the babies.

Just as they thought they were making progress, a woman walked into the building, looked around and firmly but quietly said, “Don’t you think it’s time we went upstream to see who is throwing them in?”

This fable describes a lot of the work that gets done in the world of social change.  Lawyers valiantly defend clients accused of crimes that grew from systemic problems.  We wear ourselves out with efforts that are akin to pulling babies out of the water, rather than changing the system that creates the babies.  

It isn’t our lack of commitment or compassion that keeps us down the river.  The work we do makes a difference for the ones we serve, but it doesn’t stop the stream of cases that seem to never end.

[I should note here that I am intentionally simplifying the Systems Change movement.  It is actually a complex academic and organizational development discipline with noted scholars, journals, conferences, and books.  If you want to know more, a good starting point would be to investigate the work of Peter Senge. ]
From Systems Thinking to Systems Change

So how do we make the changes that need to be made, to stop the flow of cases and create the society we want to create?  Systems change theory has some ideas for us there.

 

The most common image for exploring systems thinking is the iceberg.   As we all know, only a small percentage of the iceberg is visible.   In our systemic view, that 10% of visible iceberg equates to the events and results we can see each day.  Looking at the typical law office as part of this system, this first visible level is the hamster wheel of activities, the clients who hire you, the conversations you have with the people you work with.  It is what you actually do and what you actually can see, the cases you handle, the babies you’re pulling out of the water, if you will.
Just below the surface of the visible iceberg, you will find the patterns in your office.  Do you come in at a certain time each day?  What is the office routine?  What are the habits that support your everyday law practice?  This level includes things like your filing system, the way you manage deadlines.    What is the way that you pull the babies out of the water and what do you routinely do to care for them?

The next level is the layer upon which those habits and the happenings occur, the community within which you practice and the habits and procedures. In law, it could be about what day you report for calendar call, your area of practice, the habits of lawyers as a group of people, as part of a system.   

The deepest layer of this legal iceberg is Consciousness and Values.  This layer is the foundation of the others:  what are my values?  What do my values tell me about who I am and what I do?  What do I believe?  What is my worldview and the culture in which my life occurs?  What are the values that shape everything I do and everything that is done in the community?  

Change is most lasting when it is deeper

At the very top level, all you can really do is react to each circumstance as it arises.  It is easy to fall into this mode of putting out fire and fire, never getting to the source of the problem. Reactivity is not the most effective tool for change.  There are a lot of practice management tools that are sold to lawyers to try to address the chaos.  

As you work at deeper levels, you have increasing leverage.   By going a level deeper and exploring the patterns in the law office, you can anticipate problems at the top level of the iceberg and prevent them.  

The next level starts to look from the viewpoint of a larger system, with other lawyers and stakeholders.  We’ve all experienced changes in the design and structure of the courts.  A big change in my jurisdiction came when Mediation was required before litigation could commence.  It affected our patterns and the way we did our everyday business, and it wasn’t just my office which was affected.  Everyone made changes in their office routines and procedures for that.   
Finally, when change occurs at the level of values and consciousness, it causes a domino effect of change throughout the system.    

If a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory.  If a revolution destroys a government,  but the systemic patterns of thought that produced that government  are left intact,  then those patterns will repeat themselves. …There is so much talk about the system, and so little understanding.
                Robert Pirsig,  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Integrative Law reflects one of those basic, deep changes in Consciousness and Values.  Our values call us to work on ourselves, to do the inner reflection, then bring our awareness of the bigger picture.  We seek to bring those values into the legal system and the broader society.    Our awareness of our interconnectedness, our commitment to a better society, and our recognition of broader issues lead us to practice in new ways, to challenge systemic inequities, and to seek lasting change in consciousness.

My take is there is an internal aspect of this bureaucracy, an emotional, psychological dimension of this stressful problem-solving landscape that generates fear in us, which further inhibits our ability to move forward in innovative and sustainable ways.  Essentially, the systems we have created to serve us actually shoot us in the collective foot.  And this phenomenon, this feedback loop of anti-progress is what keeps us often from feeling functional (well), and by extension, from remedying the underlying issues which have created the conflict we are experiencing in the first place.

My solution?  Let’s attempt to deal with the morass as it exists inside us as well as the morass as it exists outside, so that our process for disentangling what is at issue can emerge in a way that is fundamentally different from the mode of or approach to thinking that has gotten us to a place of challenge originally.  Let’s address the problems facing us from an internal (human) perspective as well as from an outside, tactical one.  Let’s use our understanding of how inefficient systems affect us internally in order to affect them externally.    - Shoshanna Silverberg

KIM’S VISION FOR THE LEGAL SYSTEM 2050

 

The seeds of the late 1990s and early 2000s have flourished.  We are grateful to our pioneers and trailblazers who held this vision and brought it to fruition.

Lawyers are now recognized for our true purpose: peacemaking, problem-solving and healing the wounds of the community.  Trials are rare and civil.  Collaboration, prevention, and transformation are the lawyers’ stock in trade. We create sustainable agreements and resolutions.

Lawmakers serve, conscious of all the stakeholders, and of our interconnectedness with Nature and each other.  They work on common goals and values to benefit everyone.

Law enforcement focuses on Right Relationships, working in partnership with the community to foster strong, empowered and safe communities.

Judges are wise leaders who help to balance competing values, hold everyone accountable, and deliver fair results with love, compassion and empathy.

Prisons are a part of our past. Now we focus on rehabilitation, healing, and reconnection for all members of society. Criminal behavior is seen as a symptom of brokenness that needs to be healed.

Law students still learn the focused, analytical thinking that is known as thinking like a lawyer. Now they are also trained in holistic thinking. Art is part of the balanced core curriculum.
Our history of restorative practices and nonviolent communication in schools has helped to produce citizens who tell their truths, take responsibility and accept accountability.

The Legal System Works for Everyone.

There are no more lawyer jokes. They're not funny anymore.

J. Kim Wright is an author, workshop leader, and coach who is working toward a new legal system.