Category Archives: Systems Thinking

Systems Thinking Tools: finding the root cause(s) of BIG problems

I’ve been thinking a lot about systems science lately as I prepare to teach a course in Agricultural Systems Thinking at UMass.  My last two posts focused on systems thinking as a necessary means of understanding and addressing complex, real-world problems.

Learn to Think Like a Mountain introduced the need and value of systems thinking.

Systems Thinking Tools: the Mind Map presents one of the simplest and most useful tools to help you get started.

This post examines how we can use systems thinking to understand the root cause(s) of complex problems (you know the BIG ones, like poverty, hunger, social inequity, environmental degradation, food safety……).  Lets see how this might work!

An Example

A while back, I got an email from one of my “foodie” listserves telling me that the Dole Food Company had recalled thousands of bags of pre-cut salad due to concerns about contamination by the bacteria listeria.

In fact, the Blomberg Businessweek Report stated:

“Dole Food Co.’s fresh vegetable unit has recalled more than 1,000 cases of bagged salads sold at Kroger and Wal-Mart stores in six states because of the possibility of listeria contamination.

“No illnesses have been reported.

“A representative for Dole could not be immediately reached for further comment.”

Okay, so that is interesting but might easily be overlooked (as long as you were not in one of the 6 states where the bagged salad had already been sold).   If you looked a little closer you might learn from the FDA statement that…

Listeria monocytogenes is an organism that can cause foodborne illness in a person who eats a food item contaminated with it. Symptoms of infection may include fever, muscle aches, gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea or diarrhea.

If we look at the frequency of food recalls, we might be surprised.  The Dole salad recall was NOT an isolated event, but part of a larger pattern that has become “the new normal” in the American food system.

The recall provides an opportunity to use a systems thinking tool to discover possible root causes for the recurrence of food contamination called “the iceberg”.

Here is a simple model depicting the relationship among events, patterns – and the structures (below the water line) that create an environment in which these patterns persist (even when they may not be in our best interest). If we apply the iceberg tool to this particular food recall, we can see that:

  1. The bagged salad recall is the event
  2. Multiple recalls of food every day is the pattern

So, next we will ask “what are the structures that result in the recurring patterns?”

Finding Structures

Structures are relatively permanent components of human organization that create patterns and events.  For example, a stop light at a cross roads and the government policy that requires drivers to stop at a red light are structures that result in a specific pattern of behavior.   Structures are powerful.  I described systemic structures in a previous blog. Structures are:

  1. physical things – like vending machines, roads, traffic lights etc.
  2. organizations – like corporations, government, schools…
  3. policies – like laws, regulations, tax incentives….
  4. ritual – like habitual behaviors so ingrained, they are not conscious.

In the case of fresh food recalls, these structures represent all that is good and bad about industrial agriculture, which is a system in which the farm is viewed as a machine (a very efficient and profitable one but still a machine) rather than a living system.  Some of the structures that result in food recalls are:

  1. Large corporate farms with the primary objective of making a profit
  2. Monoculture farming that creates large amounts of single food items
  3. Mechanically assisted harvest equipment (that spread bacteria)
  4. Washing and handling equipment that handles enormous quantities of fresh food quickly in shared water baths
  5. The corporately controlled global food distribution system that ships products by truck, rail, air and boat anywhere in the world
  6. The Food and Drug Administration inspection system and the policies that test, track and recall potentially contaminated food

These structures which support a very efficient industrial agricultural system will ALWAYS result in food recalls. To eliminate food recalls we have to change the structures that create an environment in which recalls are inevitable.

Recent efforts to do a better job tracking adulterated food have been proposed but do not address the root cause of the problem.   Proposals to irradiate food treat the problem after the contamination has occurred.  A recent British study on global food safety titled “Root Cause Analysis” missed the mark and only focused on improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the same structures that ALWAYS result in food recalls.  Root causes are poorly understood.

To find root causes, you have to go deeper than the structures in the iceberg model.  Structures are created by how and what we think or “mental models“.

Finding root causes of patterns of behavior means we need to dig down to the level of mental models.  Once we understand the thinking that produces the structures that result in certain patterns of behavior, we can make better decisions.  In this case, the answer to reducing food recalls (along with many other problems created by industrial agriculture) is to create a safer and more sustainable food and farming system.

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my World.edu posts.

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Systems Thinking Tools: the mind map

My last blog, Learning to Think Like a Mountain, introduced “systems thinking” as a useful means of understanding why “linear thinking” is inadequate when a problem under study: 1) is complex; 2) involves multiple relationships; and/or 3) involves human decision-making and uncertainty.

This post introduces one of the simplest and most useful of all the systems thinking tools, the mind map.  There are many variations of this tool, including concept mapping and spider diagramming but they are all generally used to view multiple, complex (non-linear) relationships in a system.  One of the failures of industrial agriculture is the assumption that it functions as a machine, with inputs (seeds, sun, fertilizer) that flow into a farm and outputs (food, fiber) flowing out.

This simple, linear understanding (which Annie Leonard described so well in the popular video The Story of Stuff) is inadequate as we work toward an agroecological frame for agricultural sustainability.  The mechanistic, linear view will rarely account for questions about environmental justice, decay of soil health, offsite impacts of pesticides, or vitality of rural communities, which may be discounted as “externalities.”  These perspectives, will on the other hand, be considered using systems thinking.

The mind map is also a nice tool for telling a story, such as how a household designed on permaculture (or ecological) principles is likely to view a “cup of tea.”

Instructions

To get started, you simply pick a topic and depict it either in words or a symbol in the middle of a page.  Here is a mind map of how to mind map.

Viewing the entire diagram, most people can easily get a sense of what a mind map is all about rather quickly.  Some suggestions on how to get started are:

  1. Start in the center with a description of the topic or theme
  2. Write whatever comes to mind next as a “sub-topic” and draw a connecting line, do it again, and again….
  3. Use images and symbols as much as possible
  4. Select key words and print clearly
  5. Each word/image should sit on its own line or inside its own bubble
  6. The lines should be connected, starting from the central image.  Important connections between concepts in different sub-section should be indicated
  7. Use colors to code for key ideas or sub-systems (sections of the map)
  8. Use thinker lines to indicate more important connections
  9. Put the most important ideas are near the center (its a hierarchy of ideas)
  10. Do it your own way!

Using Mind Maps in Agricultural Systems

Mind maps are useful tools for beginning to understand a complex system (like a farm).  The following is a mind map of a community farm in Waltham, MA developed by a student taking our online class, Sustainable Agriculture.   To try to understand the farm in depth, it is useful to review their web page – Waltham Fields Community Farm.  However to get a quick understanding of what the farm is all about, nothing beats a mind map.

Mind maps are particularly useful for:

  • understanding complex problems
  • taking notes
  • initial stages of designing a project
  • team collaboration
  • creative expression
  • presenting complex material in a concise format
  • team building or synergy creating activity

We often ask students to make a mind map of farms they have visited in our Sustainable Food and Farming classes at UMass.  For some examples, look at the links for individual students who took PLSOILIN 265 Sustainable Agriculture online.  I teach a course on Agricultural Systems Thinking at UMass as well.

There are lot of mind mapping software packages available, but I find the best way to learn to do this is drawing by hand.  Here is an example of a hand drawn mind map on a local project, Grow Food Northampton.

Mind maps are particularly useful for describing a farm because they are complex systems with multiple relationships managed by humans.  There is no “right or wrong” way to do this.  Whatever works is fine.

Why not give it a try?

NOTE: click on the link for more systems thinking blog posts!

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my World.edu posts.

 

Learn to "think like a mountain"

Aldo Leopold’s famous suggestion that only a mountain has lived long enough to “listen objectively to the howl of a wolf” reminds us that to understand how ecosystems function, we need to “think like a mountain.”  If you’ve never heard this quote, its time to read A Sand County Almanac!  And if you are a student of agricultural ecology or a related field at the University of Massachusetts, perhaps its time to take a class in Agricultural Systems Thinking.

I’ve not offered this class for the past few years, but I’ve decided to resurrect it next fall (2012) because so many students in the Sustainable Food and Farming major at UMass seem interested in creating a way of farming consistent with ecological principles.  The dominant form of farming in developed countries, industrial agriculture, violates just about every ecological principle we know in an attempt to maximize short-term financial success.

Soil and fertilizer from farms drain down the Mississippi creating a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico

Leopold was hard on industrial farming in his 1949 essay in which he wrote that farmers and ranchers have “…not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.”  We also have dead zones in the oceans, anti-biotic resistant bacteria developing from factory farms, nitrates in the groundwater, herbicides in the surface water, floods and drought, and on and on and on…..

The solution is a more sustainable agriculture designed in ways that are consistent with ecological principles.  It is unlikely however that we will be successful in developing such techniques until we learn to think like a mountain and come to appreciate the profound interconnectedness of the components of an ecosystem (either natural or agricultural) over both space and time.

Our educational system trains students to think in a linear, logical, analytical way at best, or simply to memorize disconnected facts at worst.  Graduates are well-prepared to take exams and write papers, but not to think creatively and systemically about climate change, war, poverty, hunger, environmental degradation etc.

These intractable problems won’t budge in response to linear thinking.  Systems thinking tools are needed to begin to understand why these systemic problems are so resistant to our efforts.  Systems thinking is a way of understanding complex real-world situations such as those often encountered in sustainable food and farming careers.

Systems tools are needed to complement more traditional scientific approaches when a problem under study: 1) is complex; 2) involves multiple relationships; and/or 3) involves human decision-making.  Agricultural Systems Thinking (STOCKSCH 379) will introduce students to systems tools for unraveling complexity and integrating their learning from previous courses and experience.

I’d appreciate your own thoughts and feedback in the comments box below.  But for now, lets just remember Leopold’s famous description of the howl of the wolf…..

“A deep chesty bawl echoes from rimrock to rimrock, rolls down the mountain, and fades into the far blackness of the night. It is an outburst of wild defiant sorrow, and of contempt for all the adversities of the world. Every living thing (and perhaps many a dead one as well) pays heed to that call.”

 And his final thought:

“In wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men.”

Systems thinking provides us with the tools to learn to…

think like a mountain.

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A conceptual foundation for teaching "Sustainability" courses

Have you noticed the word “sustainability” showing up in the titles of many new courses at universities and colleges these days?  I surely have at the University of Massachusetts – and for the most part I think it is a good thing.  It worries me a bit however, when I hear my faculty colleagues talking about sustainability as if its little more than environmentalism.  This blog was written in preparation for a Five College Sustainability Studies Seminar.

My observations on the emergence of sustainability as an academic discipline are flavored by my own experiences in sustainable agriculture.  When this field of study appeared in early 1980’s it was largely driven by the thinking and interest of farmers.  The academy first ignored the call for more research and education on agricultural sustainability.  This was followed by ridicule, derision, and eventually acceptance (helped along by a source of federal funding).

Over the next 25 years, sustainability studies spread throughout the university and today we even have a major national association called The American Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.   Things have certainly changed!

A few faculty (perhaps who were not part of the early debates about the nature of sustainability studies) may be inclined to attach the word sustainability as an adjective in front of the title of a course they have been teaching for years.  This blog post challenges us all to develop our own intellectual foundation for teaching sustainability courses before we name them “sustainable”…… here is a brief look at mine.

triangleAlmost everyone accepts some version of the “sustainability triangle” which includes 3 “E’s”…

  1. Environment
  2. Economy
  3. Equity (as in social equity or justice)

While the words used by different communities of scholars or practitioners may differ, we often see symbolic representations of these three basic concepts associated with the word sustainability. Sometimes these three concepts are depicted as overlapping circles.

threecircles

These common and generally accepted symbolic representations are useful, as they clearly require us to consider social equity or justice (often overlooked) as part of the sustainability equation.  However, they all have a common flaw…. they each assume competition among equally important perspectives.  This limited view allows us to negotiate tradeoffs between environmental quality and economic vitality, for example.

How often have we heard a business executive decry that “we just can’t afford to protect the environment today.”  Or perhaps a congressperson claim that some social justice legislation is a “job killer.”  As long as we accept these symbolic representations of sustainability, I suspect economic considerations will always win out over environmental or equity concerns.

But what if we took the same three symbolic circles and put them inside of each other, with the economy at the center? 

econsocenv02

We might then begin to understand that we can’t sustain a healthy economy within a sick society, nor a healthy society within a sick environment.  This symbolic representation of the same three concepts shifts the relationship they have to each other.  This is the representation of the three perspectives we need for the long term, which is what sustainability is supposed to be all about!

This picture changes everything!

We can not afford to have “either/or” conversations about money and society – nor about society and the environment.  We must begin to see that the economy is thoroughly embedded in society and the environment and change the assumption that it is okay to grow an economy by exploiting people and the natural world…..  this cannot be sustained.

Does this mean that the environment is more important than the economy?  NO!  It means that they are each critical to each other but there is a “directionality” to our sense of purpose.  In the study of living systems we learn to look to the “smaller” circles for function and the larger circles for purpose.  That is, human society can look to the economy as a tool to a serve a higher purpose, such as a healthy community and livable natural world.

This only makes sense if we see human nature as an integral part of “mother nature.”  Understanding that humans are apart of (rather than a part from) nature and subject to the “laws of Mother Nature” allows us to know who we are and where we fit in the world.  It gives us a foundation upon which to explore the big questions, like “who am I” and “why am I here?”  Students and teachers studying sustainability should be challenged by these questions in ways that are engaging and purposeful.

But how do we teach our classes based on this holistic, integrated nature of sustainability?  For me, the answer is by telling stories!  In my sustainability classes, I invite academics and practitioners to share stories about their lives and work in ways that integrate our desire for financial security, community connections, and a livable natural world.

A course on sustainability cannot afford to be merely objective.  There are values and purpose embedded in the study of sustainability…. yes, even within the academy.  There are even times when I’ve engaged in discussions of  spirituality in class!  Here is why...

We might see our individual self as a part of something bigger, lets call it the “family-self”, which is part of a”community-self” etc.  Continuing our exploration of the symbolism of circles within circles, lets now ask… “whats the next realm to consider?”

diineself

For some I suspect it might be the study of the ecology.

For others, perhaps cosmology.

For me, its the divine….

Sustainability studies, for me, is an opportunity to explore our relationship with some power greater than finite ourselves.  And what could possibly be more important than that?

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What is your conceptual foundation for teaching sustainability?  Please share your thoughts in the comments box below….

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends and perhaps comment   For more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please check out my web page Just Food Now.

On creativity and the sources of "new ideas"

A few years ago, I ran a cross a little book called The Use of Lateral Thinking by Edward DeBono.  I’d like to share some of Professor DeBono’s thinking on creativity and the sources of “new ideas.”

DeBono was a Maltese educator and thinker.  He has a Ph.D. from Cambridge University and has had faculty appointments at Oxford, Harvard, and Cambridge. He has consulted for academic institutions, governments, and corporations worldwide on educational theory and learning.  He has written 25 books on cognition, which have been translated 20 languages.

DeBono is given credit for the concept of lateral thinking, a tool used to create fresh ideas.  He claims that most ideas come from vertical or logical thinking, which may produce “an answer” but is likely to be inadequate in the face of new and complex “real world” problems.  Really fresh “new ideas” won’t emerge from logical thinking.

DeBono uses the image of digging holes to describe the quest for new ideas.  He says you can’t find the answers to new problems by using old ideas. Sometimes you have to dig in a new place.

DeBono writes:

“It is not possible to dig a hole in a different place by digging the same hole deeper.”

If we need new and creative solutions to emerging real world problems, it is unlikely that we will find them in our text books, classrooms, libraries, or even the scientific journal articles….. the ideas that we have “dug out of the old holes.”  An example of a new idea is the “communiversity” that I wrote about some years ago, and turned out to be just another new hole that was ignored by the university.  So why are new ideas so difficult to take seriously?

DeBono writes,

“…it is easier to go on digging in the same hole than to start all over again in a new place.”

University research and education programs are really good at digging in places that have proved successful in the past.  Institutions are designed to be conservative and giving up the old holes is difficult.  DeBono continues…

“The disinclination to abandon a half-dug hole is partly a reluctance to abandon the investment of effort that has already gone into the hole. It is far easier to go on doing the same thing rather than wonder what else to do.”

DeBono says that it is easier to follow along the path of current understanding, present knowledge, old ideas when he writes….

“…no sooner are two thoughts strung together than there is a direction, and it becomes easier to string further thoughts along in the same direction, than to change your thinking.”

DeBono paints the unglamourous picture of scientists digging away at old holes, exploring old ideas, when he writes…

“by far the greatest amount of scientific effort is directed towards the logical enlargement of some accepted hole. Many are the minds scratching feebly away or gouging out great chunks according to their capacity. Yet great new ideas and great scientific advances have often come about through people ignoring the hole that is in progress and starting a new one.”

DeBono explains that the process of education is designed to make people appreciate the holes that have been dug for them by their teachers, supervisors, or elders.  And enlarging the hole that has already been started, offers an opportunity for progress and the promise of rapid advancement within the academy.

Our education and evaluation systems encourage us to jump down into the hole with our teachers (the experts) and dig along side of them. This is how we achieve recognition and advancement, we join the experts.

DeBono offers the following observation about experts:

“An expert is an expert because he understands the present hole better than anyone else.”

and

“Experts are usually to be found happily at the bottom of the deepest holes.”

In our university system diggers are rewarded, even if they are at the bottom of out-dated holes, ones that were appropriate last year, or the last decade.

If college and university educators are to remain relevant in a rapidly changing world, we’ve got to climb out of the old holes and have a look around.   DeBono encourages us to dig new holes in more original places. He says we never will see a better hole from the bottom of the one we are currently in.

New ideas abound, but we  will need to look outside of our own professional organizations, our own academic departments, our university culture to see them.

We need to broaden our horizons, first by listening more carefully to what our students are talking about and then perhaps by reading an internet newspaper, or create a customized RSS feed for those topics that interest you.  If you are new to this, perhaps just follow World.edu on Twitter, or “like” us on Facebook.  We all need to open ourselves to creative thought from many places if we want to be relevant in the future.

The social networking world seems intimidating (and foolish) at times, but it can really open our eyes if we are willing to wade in!   I believe this web portal is a wonderful way for global educators to stay linked to some of the freshest new ideas in sustainability and higher education.  I called for such linkage when I first wrote about the communiversity in 1997.  The updated version of my essay adds some specifics about the technologies predicted in the late 90’s.  But its not too late!  Why not “get linked?”

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"Talking Sustainability" – to change how we think!

Last week I posted a blog claiming that “mental models” (our worldview, the stories we tell about ourselves, and core values) must change before we are likely to see a significant shift towards more sustainable human behavior.  That is, before we are able to change social policies or large scale behavior…. we must change how we think!

Well, if that is true….. the next question might be….. “how do we change human minds?” I will use the same iceberg model to describe a process for creating a convincing argument for change.   Remember this?

iceberg
One of the core competencies of a successful human in our world is the ability to create a convincing argument for your perspective.  Another critical competency is the ability to listen and learn from others.  To convince someone they should change their behavior to be more sustainable, the first necessary condition is trust (which is built by learning to listen respectfully).   Without trust….  don’t even bother to present your case!  This is where “cor ad cor loquitur” becomes really important.

Of course, it can be pretty frustrating having to listen to folks who are not interested in learning, growing or changing.  I will deal with how to think about people who are “just not interested” in a future blog.  For now, lets focus on how to talk with the many people who already know “something is wrong” but aren’t quite willing to change their behavior (yet).

Know any of these folks?

Maybe you are a student, headed home to visit Mom and Dad.  Or perhaps you are just hanging out with good friends.  In either case, here is how to go about presenting an argument which might convince people who already trust you to change their behavior.

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First, turn the iceberg model upside down!

We begin by talking about mental models.  If you share what you truly care about with someone you trust, you set the “frame” for the discussion.

But remember, honesty is really important.   This is not “spin.”  Speak from the heart…..

If I am trying to encourage a friend to consider a new and more sustainable behavior, I might begin by getting their attention with some facts that seem inconsistent with their own mental models.  Like this…

“Did you know that the Walmart Corporation is the largest grocery retailer in the U.S.?  Yup, they seem to be ready to take over the world!”

Walmart?   A grocery store?  Hmmmmmm…..  Now, most people are overwhelmed with information today and are no longer surprised (or even interested) in facts.  If we spend too much time talking about facts, our listener is likely to get bored.  So we change the subject quickly (now that we have their attention) to an expression of our core values.  We talk mental models and speak from the heart…..

“You know, as corporations get more and more powerful, I keep wondering about what happens to ‘the little guy.’  I mean, do individuals even have a chance today to create a good live without being owned by these corporations? “

At this point, we hope our listener is engaged.  If so, we continue…..

“I’ve been thinking about the things I really care about…. like people having enough food to eat.  I care about clean air, water and a living soil.  I care about children having chance for a decent life.  I care about Mother Nature.  I care about the place that I live, my family, and my work.  These are the things I hold most dear.  I don’t think the corporation cares about these things.

What do you care about most deeply?”

Getting someone to talk about their own deeply held values begins to set the frame for the rest of the conversation.   So far, we are talking at the level of mental models.  As we work down the “upside down” iceberg, the next stage is systemic structures.  These are;

  1. physical things,
  2. organizations,
  3. policies, and
  4. rituals.

Changing structures has the power to change behavior.  But I would try to avoid talking about structures in the abstract. Rather, lets share a story about a particular structure that is consistent with our professed core values.  For me, it might be the North Amherst Community Farm.  This is what I’d say….

“Did you know there is a group of crazy people in my neighborhood who got together and bought a farm?  Yup, it seems that about 30 acres right in the middle of my suburban neighborhood was about to be sold for housing development.  My neighbors got together and raised enough money with help from the state and town governments to save the farm.

“We’ve still got a mortgage of course.  But this little neighborhood group saved this land from development and it is now being farmed by two terrific families who live right there on the property.  They have a 300 member CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) the world’s best vegetables, grass-fed beef, sheep, pigs, and chickens.  It is very cool….. and it is right in my backyard!”

NACF represents a real life structure that is consistent with my core values.  It represents a “reasonable” change option (because it is true), even though none of us ever thought we’d “own a farm.”

Now that I have my listeners attention, I talk about a pattern of behavior that emerges out of the structure I’ve just described.  And once again, I do it by telling a story…..

“One of the biggest surprises that grew out of  saving this farm was all of the people in town who got interested in raising egg laying chickens in their backyard!   The farm has about 200 laying hens as part of the CSA.  Once folks were introduced to fresh eggs, it was difficult to go back to industrial eggs.  And several of them are now raising their own!

This “hopeful story” represents a pattern of behavior that grew out of the structure and mental models we’ve been talking about.  We continue….

“We organized this workshop around Mother’s Day last year, called ‘Homes for Hens’ and 50 people showed up.  Parents and grandparents and lots of kids came to learn how to have a few hens in their backyard.  We let them hold the hens and talked about how to take care of them.  It was really fun!  There were lots of good questions and stories being told by the teachers as well as the participants!”

“And now, we’ve got a half dozen or so families in the area raising hens and teaching others.  We are not changing the world of course, but it sure does show kids something valuable about where their food comes from!”

I’d keep the story short and let my listener ask questions.  At this point, we continue to move down the “upside down iceberg” and suggest an action, consistent with the pattern of behavior (raising chickens), the structure (the new farm), and the mental models we have been talking about.

The key to shifting mental models – is taking action. Unless we “make it real” – nothing changes.  So maybe  next I’d say…

“Hey, you want to run by the farm and help collect some eggs?  I’ll bet the farmers would appreciate some help, and maybe give you a few so you can try them out for breakfast tomorrow.  If you want a little exercise, we can pull some weeds while we are there too.  Anyway,  I’d like you to meet the farmers.  They are great folks!”

That’s it.  Simple but it can be effective.  To change how people think:

  1. we begin with an expression of common values (mental models),
  2. share a success story of a real life structural change,
  3. tell a story about how behavioral patterns have shifted, and
  4. conclude with a suggested action (consistent with those values).

Mental models don’t change when we tell someone they are doing something wrong.  Arguing with people who just don’t want to hear it will fail!

For example, we know that the world is full of cynicism, selfishness and irresponsible behavior.  Telling someone not to behave in this way will not result in systemic change.

When we see someone throwing a plastic water bottle in the trash for example, simply shouting “hey, don’t do that” will not shift mental models, but rather cause people to retrench and protect their own worldview.

To change an old mental model, it needs to be replaced with a new mental model that is more empowering.

“Out with the old and in with the new” is a tactic that can change mental models.  The new worldview must be compelling and honest.  It must be based in possibility and consistent with commonly held values.

This can work!

Or at least, it is worth a try.  Take the iceberg and “turn it upside down.”   To convince a friend or family member to shift toward more sustainable behaviors, why not try John Henry Newman’s motto:

“Cor ad Cor Loquitur”  – heart speaks to heart

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As an example, I’ll close with one of my favorite short videos.  Notice that Paul Hawken begins with an expression of values and a new compelling worldview (mental model) and then introduces thousands of structures (organizations) that are real (realistic).  He presents a pattern of behavior represented by these structures and closes by claiming that “human kind knows what to do.”  This is a clear call for action.   See if you are moved by the story……

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I believe the shift in mental models that Hawken is talking about is possible  – and in fact is happening now…….

Do you?

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.

Which comes first – sustainable policies or sustainable behavior? Neither – sustainable thinking must come first!

Last week one of my Sustainable Agriculture students declared “you’ve got to change government policies before you can expect people to change their behavior.”  Of course we know that policies such as tax incentives and regulations are effective in influencing human behavior.  But changing policies (particularly in the current divisive political climate) is a daunting task.  This blog post presents a framework for thinking about social change.  We’ll begin with an iceberg!

icebergpict1-250x239The “iceberg” model is used by systems thinkers to understand the root cause of human behaviors.  In this model, an “event” such as stopping your car at a red light, is influenced by the “pattern of behavior” of everyone stopping at the red light, which is caused by “systemic structures” such as the traffic light and state and federal motor vehicle regulations.  But the root cause of the entire systems is the “mental model” or the thought that safety matters and society has a right to regulate individual behavior.  Get it?

Lets apply the iceberg model to try to understand why so many of us participate in non-sustainable behaviors.  Another example…  An event might be something like putting a dollar in a vending machine and purchasing a bottle of water.  This simple action is part of a larger pattern of behavior in the industrialized world we might think of as “convenient lifestyle.”  It is so common that most of us don’t even think about it.  When we are thirsty, it is “common sense” to buy water delivered in a plastic bottle – so we do.

bottlesOf course environmental activists shudder when they think about this everyday act.  We buy millions of plastic water bottles daily, drink the water (it takes just a few minutes) and then……. we throw the bottle “away” (most plastic water bottles are NOT recycled in the U.S.).  We know that a plastic water bottle will not decompose in a landfill.  So for a few minutes use…… we toss out a product that will last a thousand years!   Yikes, not very sustainable, huh?

dasani

How can this be?   Well, lets look around and notice the systemic structures we have created to support this behavior.  I don’t know about you, but when I look around, I see Dasani vending machines EVERYWHERE. We buy plastic water bottles because we have created structures to make this kind of behavior easy.

To change behavior, we MUST change systemic structures, such as:

  1. physical things – like vending machines, roads, traffic lights etc.
  2. organizations – like corporations, government, schools…
  3. policies – like laws, regulations, tax incentives….
  4. ritual – like habitual behaviors so ingrained, they are not conscious.

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The dominant structures in the industrial world encourage non-sustainable behavior. For example:

  • a national highway system that makes individual driving more convenient than mass transportation,
  • fast food restaurants on every corner,
  • subsidized fossil fuel,
  • tax incentives for factory farms,
  • weak regulations on off-shore drilling, and
  • plastic water bottle vending machines EVERYWHERE,

…..are all systemic structures that encourage non-sustainable behavior.  And why have we created physical things, and organizational and policy structures that support and encourage non-sustainable behavior?

Right – mental models!   Mental models support systemic structures that in turn influence social behavior (patterns) and individual behavior (events).

Mental models are powerful!

The iceberg helps us to understand why it is so difficult to change human behavior.  Unless we look well “below the waterline” of the iceberg, we will never understand the root cause of non-sustainable behaviors.

icebergpict1-250x239Non-sustainable actions and patterns dominate mainstream society.  We burn fossil fuels carelessly, we allow toxins to enter our air, water and bloodstream, we purchase products that are cheap (because someone in a developing country isn’t paid a living wage).  People frustrated by this behavior, try to change regulations (structures) and encourage more sustainable behaviors (patterns).  But change comes slowly  – primarily because of mental models.

As a faculty member at a major agricultural university in the late 1980’s, I spent a lot of time and energy trying to change patterns of behavior within the conventional farming community by flying around the U.S. giving speeches about sustainable agriculture.  As a university administrator, I spent much of the 1990’s trying to change the structure of university research and extension education programs to be supportive of a more sustainable agriculture.  Neither strategy proved effective, primarily because of rigid mental models.

Maybe we need to try another approach.  While activists are working to change policies and educators are trying to help change personal behavior, we also need to change the way we think.   Unless mental models (common sense) shifts, changes in behavior and patterns won’t last.

When mental models begin to shift, structures, patterns of behavior, and events will follow.

This is basic systems theory (which I will explore more in a future blog).  For now, lets just say this concept is represented by the reinforcing feedback loop pictured on the left.

Not convinced?   Lets look at how a powerful mental model prevents us from protecting human health.  Remember the salmonella outbreak and egg recall that struck the U.S. egg industry last summer?  The industrial system for producing eggs not only treats live hens as if they were part of a giant machine, but can’t adequately protect human health.  Of course, industrial egg production is part of a larger pattern of behavior many of us think of as factory farming.  These farms make sense in the context of the industrialized worldview that is our dominant mental model of agriculture today.  Many of us believe this must change.

However, as long as most humans continue to pursue busy, stressed and competitive lives focused money, power and prestige, we will not likely take the steps necessary to change the way we grow food.  The mental model of “industrialized living” not only results in human stress but also recalled eggs.   Lets have a look at an example….

Can you identify characteristics of the mental models that result in BOTH industrial eggs and industrial human lives?  What attributes drive both of these systems?  Well, perhaps……

  1. a desire to increase productivity (at all costs)
  2. systems which focus on efficiency (at all costs)
  3. the belief that success is defined by how much money you make
  4. the belief that humans are not subject to natures rules
  5. what else?
  6. please share your ideas in the comment box below.

Systems thinkers know that while mental models are difficult to change, this is where we will find the leverage needed to create a sustainable human society.

The next logical question ishow?

I will attempt to deal with this question in a future blog.

For now, please share your own thoughts in the comment box below.  Thank you…..

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