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The better your understanding of the system the more leverage you have

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

The better your understanding of the system the more leverage you have

Scott Miker

We are all constantly interacting with systems.  Systems are all around us and constantly “working”.  Sometimes they are specifically designed systems, such as the traffic light system, and other times they are there and we barely notice them, such as our habits around driving a car. 

Systems thinkers argue that the deeper you get into the understanding of the system, the more leverage you gain.  This means that you have more ability to change the system when you fully understand that system. 

The idea comes originally from Peter Senge’s systems thinking iceberg.  It explains that what we are aware of (the exposed tip of the iceberg that is above water) is simply the events around a system.  We see the stock market go up or down but don’t exactly investigate enough to see the system.  Or we see a crime occur in our neighborhood on the news but don’t stop to really understand the systematic elements around that crime.

When we stay at this level, we are very reactionary.  We see our stock value drop and we think to sell.  We see a heinous crime close to home and buy a security system for our house.  While these may be good responses, they are still only touching the surface of the systems at play.

Just below the surface lie patterns and trends.  This is usually the first step to identifying the system and what it entails.  We may see that the stock market always drops when a certain report comes out or that the crime rate for our area hasn’t actually changed, it was just this one act that was “newsworthy.”

If we continue to dive deeper we can start to see underlying structures.  This may be to better understand what impacts the stock market.  What are the various structures that have an impact on how the stock market changes?  Or it may be to better understand the various criminal justice structures or the economics around the community and how that may impact crime. 

If we dive even deeper we start to see mental models.  We see the thinking that creates the structures and why the structures are the way they are.  This will give us deep insight into the full system.  We gain a clearer picture of the stock market and the systems around it.  We start to see crime as a component of a community in which there are differences in the beliefs and values of those in the community. 

I’ve read that as we get deeper into the systematic understanding we gain leverage.  If we can change the mental models, then the structures will change and will change the patterns and ultimately the events.  But this is easier said then done.

If we shift the thinking from large external systems like the stock market and neighborhood crime, and instead focus on systems that we have a great deal of control over, we might start to gain more understanding.

We may step on the scale in the morning and see a much higher number that we hoped (event).  Then we start to see a trend where weight has increased consistently at a certain rate over the past few months (patterns).  Then we start to look at our eating and nutrition habits (structures).  If we dive deep enough we may start to see that we look to food for enjoyment and feel that we would rather be happy and overweight than give up that happiness to be skinny (mental models). 

So understanding that system we may think we gain the most leverage by addressing the mental models.  If we can “convince” ourselves that we have to lose weight because it ultimately will make us happier not less happy, then theoretically it should be easy to change the systematic structures, which will change the patterns, and ultimately the number on the scale.

But in my experience this was extremely difficult.  No matter what I tried to do, the mental models were deeply held beliefs.  They weren’t based on logic necessarily, so I couldn’t just out-think them. 

Eventually I did learn how to change my mental models.  I did this by first changing my behaviors.  I didn’t just change a few behaviors a few times, I looked at habits and focused on repeated behavior change. 

So it actually started at the top of the iceberg.  I changed a decision in a single moment.  I made the decision to eat healthier this one time.  I did that because it was a lot easer than saying I will never eat another cookie in my life.  That seemed so ridiculous that I knew I wouldn’t stick with it.  Each time I was presented with a cookie I had to take on every future time as well as this time. 

So I changed it.  I only took on this one time.  But I did this over and over again.  I started to form new patterns.  And by doing this over and over again I started to build the structures (habits) that would help me continue to improve.  This started to slowly change my mental models.  Instead of trying to argue with myself or convince myself that deeply help mental models were wrong, I was proving them wrong.  The proof that they were wrong was the only thing that actually started to change them. 

So I understand the notion that leverage lies in the deeper levels and I agree with it.  If we are at those levels and can change, we have leverage.  But it can be extremely difficult to do.  Instead, if we start with the single events and work to change behavior over time we can start to build the right habits, which will start to change our thinking.  This is how you truly gain leverage over a system.  It also shows why many systems are not easily changed.  Imagine trying to change the behavior or thinking of everyone associated with any aspect of the stock market.  Or trying to eliminate crime by just telling criminals that it is in their best interest to avoid committing a crime. 

Get deeper understanding of the systems around us and we will gain leverage.  But that might mean starting with the events, then working to establish patterns, which will start to build the structures that will ultimately change our mental models.