It’s all well and good to take a systems approach to fixing systems. But it’s important to realize that the biggest obstacle to repairing a system is often ingrained in the system itself. The bigger and the more widely it’s used, the more its users are likely to resist change – even if they are the ones who demanded it in the first place.
I’ve recently been involved in coming up with improvements to the Policy System at where I work. One of the complaints we’ve heard from system users is that the current system is too complicated: among other things, it’s not clear what you have to do for internal policies as opposed to those that affect the public. (It appears that some of this confusion has come from people not reading the policy that spells out the Policy System, but that’s a whole other matter.)
My boss had an idea for simplifying the system that would have been simple and straightforward: external policies would be of one type; internal policies would be of another. The only problem was this change would have left many current policies out of synch with the new framework. When he presented this idea to the Department’s leadership, they objected to this disruption to their part of the system. Apparently, they wanted things simplified without making any major changes to the system.
This kind of reaction is not uncommon in changing systems. People have problems with parts of a system and think “there has to be a better way.” They may very well be right. But the thing about systems is that they tend to have many users who have different perspectives on what the system is supposed to accomplish.
To take the current debate over reforming the American health care system as an example, different groups of users expect different things from the current system, as well as from any new system that might eventually replace it. Patients expect it to help them stay or get healthy; doctors expect it to provide sufficient payment for their services; insurers expect to take in enough money to cover their costs and risks and still make a profit.
Swirling around this system is something else that influences the nature of the system: a cloud of beliefs, ideologies and expectations about how the world is and should be, and how the health care system should fit into that world. Some people feel a moral obligation to help those in need; others feel each person is responsible for his or her own well-being, and let the chips fall where they may. Some may feel that it’s immoral for anyone to profit off the health problems of those in need of care; others may feel that the Market is the fairest arbiter of morality, rewarding the deserving and punishing the lazy.
And under all of this is an understanding of how the system is supposed to work that’s grounded in past experience: if we get sick we should go to a doctor; if we need them we should get drugs that will make us better; and if we are seriously injured or sick we should go to a hospital. Most of us don’t question our understanding – whether we really need all the drugs we take, for example.
The end result is that even when we can see that the current system is not sustainable – that it’s overly expensive and inefficient, if not immoral – any proposed changes have to run through the gamut of our expectations, beliefs, and set prejudices for the current system.
Resistance to change in a system is natural and to be expected. The question is how do we get past this resistance?
In her book “Leadership and the New Science,” Margaret Wheatley turned to quantum physics for an answer. She drew on the fact that in the quantum world things go from a state of potentiality to one of actuality through the act of observation: an electron is both a particle and a wave until it’s measured. The act of measurement – observation – finds it as either one or the other. With this in mind, Wheatley argued that the only way to successfully create change was to get those who will have to act on a plan involved in its creation:
This is where the observation phenomenon of quantum physics has something to teach us. In quantum logic, it is impossible to expect any plan or idea to be real to employees if they do not have the opportunity to personally interact with it. Reality emerges from our process of observation, from decisions we the observers make about what we will see. It does not exist independent of those activities. Therefore, we cannot talk people into reality because there truly is no reality to describe if they haven’t been there. People can only become aware of the reality of the plan by interacting with it, by creating different possibilities through their personal processes of observation.
Wheatley went on to say “…it is the participation process that generates the reality to which they then make their commitment.”
One of the major points of debate over the past year is about President Obama “letting” Congress take the initiative in writing the health care reform bills. There have been those who have criticized the President for not just creating the legislation and then dumping it on Congress, much the way the Clinton Administration did with their health care reform bill.
But Norman Ornstein praised President Obama’s approach in a Washington Post op-ed piece, describing it in terms similar to Wheatley’s description of participative change:
How to prevail under these difficult circumstances? The only realistic way was to avoid a bill of particulars, to stay flexible, and to rely on congressional party and committee leaders in both houses to find the sweet spots to get bills through individual House and Senate obstacle courses. Under these circumstances, the best intervention from the White House is to help break impasses when they arise and, toward the end, the presidential bully pulpit and the president’s political capital can help to seal the deal.
Politicians have talked for many years about the need to reform the American health care system. Perhaps the reason why we finally have health care reform bills that passed in both the House and the Senate is that a former community organizer was familiar with the idea of getting buy-in through participation.
To successfully fix a system, you have to know how to fight it.