The following discussion is based on, and inspired by, the work of Jack Harich and associates, which can be accessed here.
A systemic problem is one that originates in the structure of a system rather in the behavior of individuals participating in the system. This does not mean that individuals play no role in causing the problem; rather, it means that replacing the individuals or attempts at changing their behavior, without changing the system’s structure, will not solve the problem. This is because in any social system there is a dynamic and dialectical relationship between the structure of the system (including all the interconnections, feedback loops, explicit or implicit rules, goals, etc.) and the individuals who participate in the system. The human factor is important—it is, after all, the people whose aggregate behavior is largely responsible for bringing the structure into existence and whose continuing participation is what maintains that structure over time. The structure, however, tends to acquire a reality of its own—becoming stronger than its individual participants in many ways—that both influences and limits the behavior choices of the people operating within the system. The structure not only encourages and rewards certain behavioral tendencies but also makes alternative choices harder to imagine, let alone implement.
A social problem that persists—and often gets worse—over time, despite the application of various intuitive or commonsense solutions, is likely to be a systemic problem whose root causes lie in the structure of the system. Such a problem cannot be solved unless its root causes are accurately identified and the appropriate solution elements devised to push at high leverage points in order to address those root causes. A root cause is defined as the deepest element in a causal change that is susceptible to resolution.
When a social system operates in a way that produces desirable outcomes, we can say that it is functioning in the right mode; when it operates in way that produces undesirable outcomes, we can describe it as functioning in the wrong mode. Solving a social problem is therefore a matter of shifting the mode of the relevant social system from wrong to right. But the persistence of a social problem over a long period of time, despite huge efforts to solve it, indicates not only that the relevant social system is operating in the wrong mode, but that it has somehow become locked into that undesirable state. In other words, structural mechanisms such as feedback loops have developed that prevent the system from changing in the desired direction. As soon as any effort to shift the system’s mode starts to succeed, these mechanisms spring into action and immediately reverse those gains. When effort after effort fails to change the mode of the system, activists ought to realize that trying harder is not the solution. They need to go back to the drawing board and examine their own assumptions about the causes of the problem. In most cases of stubborn social problems, the lack of success is not due to a deficiency of effort on the part of the activists but due to their incorrect diagnosis.
To arrive at the correct causal analysis of a persistent large-scale problem, social diagnosticians must consider three types of causal forces: (1) root cause forces, (2) superficial solution forces, and (3) fundamental solution forces. These forces (as well as new root cause forces) appear in blue text in Jack Harich’s “Standard Social Force Diagram” depicted below.
When a social system is locked into the wrong mode, that’s because root cause forces arising from root causes are operating to keep the system in that mode and to oppose and defeat any and all efforts to bring about a mode change. A system operating in the wrong mode produces undesirable outcomes or symptoms, such as deforestation, high morbidity, ineffective government, too many industrial accidents, lack of sufficient housing, and so on. Concerned citizens, who find these outcomes disturbing and unacceptable, reason their way backwards from the symptoms to their possible causes. Most of the time, however, they end their analysis prematurely—as soon as they have identified what appears to them as a plausible explanation for the symptoms but is, in reality, only a set of intermediate causes. Thinking that they have found what they were looking for, they focus their efforts at unleashing superficial solution forces, which leads them to devise superficial solutions that push on low leverage points in order to address the intermediate causes. As expected, their strategy fails to solve the problem since superficial solution forces are, by definition, weaker than the root cause forces. The error, of course, lies in the incorrect diagnosis.
A successful strategy to bring about a systemic change must begin with the correct diagnosis. Instead of ending their analysis as soon as they’ve found the first plausible explanation, activists must keep digging until they have identified the root causes of the problem that lie hidden in the system’s structure, sometimes deep underneath the intermediate causes. Once the activists have identified the root causes, they will be able to focus their efforts at unleashing fundamental solution forces, which will lead them to devise fundamental solutions that push on high leverage points in order to address the root causes. Since fundamental solution forces are, by definition, stronger than root cause forces, this is the only strategy that can bring about an actual mode change in the system. As the fundamental solution forces introduce into the system new root causes, the latter give rise to new intermediate causes, which, in turn, produce new symptoms (or desirable outcomes). The new root cause forces will also give rise to new structural mechanisms including feedback loops that will keep the system locked into the right mode.The persistence of the desirable outcomes over time, and the ability of the system to maintain itself in the right mode despite any opposing efforts, will indicate that the system has, in fact, permanently shifted from being in the wrong mode to being in the right mode. This is the definition of a systemic change. Anything short of that does not deserve to be called a “success.”