Want to Drive Change? Recognize Interdependencies

Wicked problems are everywhere.

This is the second part of a two-part series of articles in which I address the Systems Model for Change, one of the six key themes for group study in my work as a Grand Challenge facilitator. Follow this link to read the first part.

That’s why Grand Challenges – collaborative responses to significant social problems that demand large-scale change – are needed. Wicked problems are difficult or impossible to solve because of their complex and interconnected nature, but that’s exactly why they need our sustained attention. Wicked problems demand interventions and the Grand Challenge methodology is a means of developing them.

A wicked problem is a complex system of systems in which at least one aspect has stabilized in an undesirable state. Like a hanging object on a mobile, this undesirable state is being held in place by all the other forces acting on it, so it cannot be dealt with in isolation. The aim of a Grand Challenge’s Common Agenda is to resolve the undesirable state into something better.

That’s where the Systems Model for Change comes in. Wicked problems get enmeshed in the systems within which people, groups, and institutions operate.

Click here to download the infographic.

In the Systems Model for Change, each element is itself a system, as shown in the infographic above. At the core are personal beliefs; surround that core are the social systems in which the individual moves. And surrounding those systems are the structural systems, consisting of local, state, and federal policy. If you are going to succeed with your Grand Challenge, you will need to design specific interventions for each system that will move it in the direction of support for the change you want to see in the world.

For example, consider the Inteleos Ultrasound Proficiency Grand Challenge. Without medical practitioners proficient in sonography, misdiagnosis is all too frequent. We have situations in the United States where highly-trained doctors in mainstream hospitals don’t believe that they need specialized training to operate ultrasound devices. These individuals simply believe they need training; they simply buy an ultrasound wand (they cost as little as $100) and connect it to a smartphone. They flaunt the certification requirements of the hospital system employing them. How can a Grand Challenge’s collaborators get inside America’s medical system and make sure that we can objectively identify the proficiency of individual practitioners? That’s a wicked problem, because our healthcare system is extremely convoluted. It requires changing the practitioners’ personal belief system, the social systems at the hospital that accept these individuals’ behaviors, and enforcing or strengthening the policies governing ultrasound practitioners and their licensure.

Three Levels of the Systems Model for Change

  1. Personal beliefs, the core level of the Systems Model,  is easily understood.  These are a web of your internal dialogue, perceptions about right and wrong, your mindset. Personal beliefs reflect the ingrained cultural and social norms in which you act. These must be addressed for your behavior to change.
  2. Social systems are the multiple relational communities that mesh with the personal and the structural systems. Here you’ll find several influential spheres.
    1. interpersonal relationships: These are the people you interact with daily, including the people you share your home with and anyone else who is a regular part of your life, such as your faith community. Even the people you see every day like your friends in the dog park, the PTA, or camping buddies, are elements in your personal system. Your behavior is greatly influenced by the people who make up your personal community.
    2. Places of work: Most adults spend the majority of their waking hours at work. The norms that are established there constantly reinforce your behavior like guardrails, including policies you must follow, peers you work with daily, and your supervisor. Even the social activity around the workplace, the water-cooler and lunchroom relationships, reinforce individual behavior.
    3. Professional communities: These are your professional peers, people like yourself who do what you do for a living. Professional societies and trade associations are natural gatherings of the people in your field or sector. Yet, even if you don’t belong to one of these, the people who train you and the learning tools you lean on for professional development come from your professional community. ProfessionaThey influence behavior across entire sectors.
    4. Regional communities: The customs, habits, and expectations of your professional peers in your region likely differ from those in other regions, and have their own nuances, identities, and ways of thinking that influence both personal belief systems and structural policies. The regional difference in attitudes and policies about abortion access that has emerged in the U.S. is an example.
  3. Structural Local, State, and Federal Policy: These are the laws and regulations that you operate under, as set by local, state, and federal governing bodies. The majority of Americans look to their elected and appointed officials to legislate and implement rules that govern our behavior. Involving government at the federal, state, and local levels is part of Christina Economos’s Ten Key Elements for Social Change that I use in my approach to Grand Challenges. When your initiative engages public servants who can rally constituents, pass legislation, and spearhead the necessary policy changes, you increase your ability to achieve systems-level change.

Each level represents an area on which a Grand Challenge intervention can focus. A working group can assess what needs to be adjusted, develop a strategy for intervention(s), and execute the tactics that will reinforce broad-scale societal change.

To achieve a Grand Challenge targeting broad societal change, a shift must happen at every level in this system of systems. Ignoring the interdependencies while pushing for change leads to unrealistic expectations. And that’s why anyone engaged in a Grand Challenge needs to understand  how the Systems Model for Change works. The strategic plan must include tactics for getting each cog in the system-of-systems to turn in ways that support the desired change.

I adapted this model from the intervention model used by the Center for Disease Controls. That model comes from  Kenneth R. McLeroy and his team at the CDC. They wrote about it in their publication, An Ecological Perspective on Health Promotion Programs.

Solving social problems is inherently SOCIAL-it happens in community. I’m looking for researchers, academicians, and those on the front lines who are battling overwhelming issues. The community will include leaders in all aspects of society: nonprofits, corporations, government agencies, independent agents, and thought leaders.

If you’re passionate about Grand Challenges or would like to be, visit my Medium account, where I am publishing on Grand Challenges. Let’s work together to address these sticky, systemic, complex, and wicked issues once and for all, for the sake of future generations of life on Earth.

Do you want to know more?
Email me – seth@visionaryleadership.com.

Scroll to Top