On Systemic Complexity & Policy

A participant at last week’s Art of Participatory Leadership shared a story about systemic complexity that I continue to think about. He was speaking very thoughtfully and articulately about the reality of conflicting programs that are often reduced to a combative battle of certitude, and that more typically fuel polarity. For example, clean energy is a great desire, and for many reasons, a direction to move toward. However, with clean energy comes many unemployed coal miners who know only coal mining.

This participant’s example closer to home about competing programs was from his own community in Tacoma. Kids need to eat healthier meals in school. It’s a good desire that comes from serious commitment to wellness promotion and to reducing epidemic diabetes. Some of these kids that he was describing rarely get greens. So, the obvious and simple step was to create a salad bar at school. Good accomplishment, right. It would be, except that another program, also committed to wellness promotion and safety had to shut the salad bar down for health risk. Open foods. Grrrr.

It was after hearing this story that this participant and a few of us sitting together strung together the awareness below as it pertains to systemic complexity and policy.

  1. In bureaucracy (society, large organizations) policy is what drives change. That’s just what a system can see and listen to.
  2. For policy to be effective it must come from an engaged community and leadership that recognizes the essential nature of community learning together. More and more policy needs to legitimize experimenting and continuous learning. It’s not just more street lights to create public safety. It’s that, and more. It’s that, and an attitude of continued curiosity to experiment and adapt.
  3. For engaged community, we must get good at asking questions about what people care about. Why is safety important to you? When have you experienced a time when you felt unsafe in this city? When is a time that you have experienced safety? What made that so? It isn’t just data that matters when engaging community. It is story and personal connection, perception, and vision.

There is not “one thing” to agree upon. If there is, it is a value, not a program. Or, it’s a process. I continue to appreciate people like this person from last week who are working the edges of evolving themselves, teams, organizations, and society in systemic complexity.