Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Root Cause for Failing to Achieve Change

Recently a civic leader I work with expressed frustration that he's heard the same complaints for years about poor workforce development outcomes in our region and nothing has changed. He correctly observed that before we try to make change happen, we need to understand the root cause for why change hasn't happened to date.

While I originally offered several specific reasons for the persistence of the workforce status quo, upon reflection I believe the real root cause is rather generic. Whether the issue is workforce development, business development, public health, innovation or entrepreneurship, the root cause for the lack of sustained positive change is that these are complex civic systems.

What is a complex civic system and why is it so hard to achieve sustained positive change within such systems?

Complex civic systems are made up of diverse independent stakeholders (organizations, institutions and individuals) from multiple sectors (private, public, nonprofit and philanthropic).

Here are several things that we need to understand about complex civic systems:

  • They are not controlled by any individual entity or even a small group of entities.
  • The outcomes – educational outcomes, business development outcomes, job training outcomes etc. – that emerge from these systems are also beyond any single entity’s control.
  • Complex civic systems exist even when they are not well coordinated. (Both chaos and order can emerge from complex systems.) Often I hear that "there is no system" or "we need to create a system." There is always a system, it just may not function in a way that we would like.)
  • The quality of what emerges from a complex civic system is determined by the quality of the interactions among the players within the system.
  • The boundaries of such systems are unclear, can change and vary widely. Just as in natural systems, civic systems are made up of multiple subsystems and they're all interconnected.
The consequences of poor performance (“the pain”) is diffuse and unevenly felt. For example, the poor performance of a workforce system in a community may mean a large international company needs to expand employment in a different market. While that may be a hardship, the company is able to expand. However, a small employer may not have resources to relocate and will instead struggle to be competitive. And the resident hurt by a poorly performing workforce system likely is neither prepared for a job, nor has access to one.

Within poorly performing civic systems, stakeholders with resources and capacity can influence parts of the system or create workarounds to achieve the desired outcomes. This may improve outcomes for some, but the overall system continues to perform poorly. Stakeholders without resources and capacity have limited influence over any part of the system and struggle to develop workarounds. They also have limited capacity to aggregate their individual interests into a collective voice and/or collective action.

This is the root cause of our frustration.

Civic leaders can catalyze the capacity for the cross-sector collaborations that are necessary to bring change to complex civic systems. The first step is recognizing the root cause of our frustration is that we are dealing with a complex system.

1 comment:

  1. This is interesting as far as it goes, but it is rather artfully and conveniently abstract, and overlooks at least two important thoughts: 1) Institutions and organizations don't lead, nor do they interact; PEOPLE do. If the people running and governing key organizations have their heads screwed on straight, good things can happen. If their management and governance are more focused on power and self-preservation, at best, very little happens, and at worst, bad things can happen. We should not fault institutions; we should fault the people who run them and who pay the people who run them, and seek to replace them. 2) Entrenched, self-interested "civic leadership" is a strong contributor to organizational entropy, the tendency of closed systems to degrade over time, absent the infusion of new energy. In communities such as Greater Cleveland, where the leadership circle has degraded significantly over the past 25 years, and whose institutions are notoriously closed and exclusive, organizations all too often devolve into self-aggrandizing cabals which spend most of their time talking only to themselves, and appeasing one another...especially if their governance structures consist of variations on the same group of corporate white males...Their focus is inward-facing within the civic "bubble" in which only good and positive (and profitable, for the people at the table) things happen, and intractable or challenging problems can be ignored, as long as we all agree to ignore them together...