The past few days I have been reviewing materials and whittling down what I will present for my upcoming workshop this Thursday, “Learn to Build a Trauma Informed System.” I find myself overwhelmed; there is ample information to share and not enough time in one day to share it. The Stanford Social Innovation Review (https://ssir.org/) – which is an esteemed clearinghouse of information on how to accomplish complex social change – is the kind of place “systems-minded” thinkers geek out. If you are a social change nerd, you will want to check it out!
I was particularly excited to read an article authored by Peter Senge and John Kania – two people I studied in my MBA in Organizational Sustainability. Much of their life’s work is about studying and defining the kind leadership we NEED in order to usher in complex social change (i.e. trauma-informed change). In my experience, change efforts often fail to recognize that we operate in systems – nested systems that are dynamic and multi-dimensional. When I train about systems theory, I help participants surface the reductionist bias we possess as westerners. We like to identify a part of a problem and apply a solution. Nice, neat, clean, simple.
Case in point, we have an opioid crisis in this country. Addiction constitutes a complex systems problem. It’s particularly bad in NH – second highest rate of overdose deaths per capita in the country (https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/articles/2017-06-28/why-new-hampshire-has-one-of-the-highest-rates-of-opioid-related-deaths). Our state has poured money and resources into the vast distribution of Narcan – an antidote – to reduce the amount of overdose deaths. This has reduced deaths and conversely, increased the number of overdoses.
In September, Manchester, broke the record for the number of overdoses in one month (110 suspected with 10 fatalities) (http://www.wmur.com/article/september-sees-record-number-of-overdoses-in-manchester/12769409). Our first responders in Manchester, NH are overwhelmed with numerous overdose calls daily. We have people asking questions like, “is Narcan making the opioid crisis worse because people don’t fear dying?” “Should we limit Naxolone administration per person?” “How can we continue to pay for this reversal drug?” The questions about Narcan illustrate the concept of applying a technical solution to a complex systems problem. It creates unintended consequences and may even worsen the problem it attempted to solve. This is exactly why Ron Heifetz touts his approach to complex systems change – adaptive leadership.
Heifetz makes a simple yet profound distinction about the kind of challenges encountered in a system – adaptive and technical. Adaptive challenges are complex problems. They are the kind of problems you can’t quite put your finger on; they are nuanced, culture and climate related; they involve beliefs, values, priorities, habits. They take a lot of time and patience to reflect about, consider, and define.
In contrast, technical challenges are often “low hanging fruit” problems. The kind of problems that have evident solutions. So often I read about well intended and committed trauma-informed efforts, and I find myself thinking, “these folks are applying technical solutions to an adaptive challenge.” That may sound elitist – it’s not that. It’s that we risk worsening already complex problems when our well-intended efforts aren’t viewed in the context of the “whole.”
Accomplishing systems change requires a broad toolkit of skills (e.g. the capacity to cultivate cross-sector relationships, facilitate hard/painful discussions, nurture strategic thinking/design thinking, etc). Most everyone can develop these skills – but it starts with recognizing the ongoing need to build individual leadership capacity. The trauma-informed movement holds the promise to revolutionize the way we function together – in most every realm. That’s HUGE! It makes sense that it requires an ongoing commitment of time, effort, and skill development for…like…ever.
Anyway, If you already think like this or are “feeling me” this article promises to energize you. Happy Nerding Out, My Fellow Change Makers! https://ssir.org/articles/entry/the_dawn_of_system_leadership