Monday, April 25, 2011

The Blame Game and Systems Thinking

A March 2011 Huffington Post article began with this line: "Recent budget cuts to a New York City program that helps families get out of homeless shelters and into apartments have sparked controversy, starting a blame game between the city and the state, and leaving the fate of 15,000 families and their homes up in the air."

One of the benefits of applying Systems Thinking to any situation is that it reduces blame.  Take the situation described in New York City.  The visible facts are listed in the line above.  Fifteen thousand families (or roughly 45,000 men, women and children) are now more likely to become homeless.  The city blames the state.  The state blames the city.  Many people blame the 45,000 people themselves. 
This could be any city in the U.S. There are unacceptable numbers of people of all ages living in cars, tents, sidewalks, abandoned buildings each year.  "It's homeless people's fault for being lazy," "It's the liberal government's fault for trying to throw money at the problem," "It's the conservatives' fault for not caring," "It's housing builders fault for building McMansions," and on and on.

Systems Dynamics expert, PJ Lamberson, says, "the psychology literature suggests a bias towards blaming people rather than the system."  Systems Thinking looks past blame at the forces at play in the system, not only at events (the actions and results that are most visible) but also the underlying patterns, structures, and beliefs that impact these results. So in the case of homelessness, the events which are most evident are homeless shelters at capacity, more people seen sleeping in parks, more unease by housed people, more frustration from business owners, etc.

By looking at the patterns and structures we see there are not enough unskilled jobs that supply a living wage as say a manufacturing economy did. We see that education prices have risen and many cannot afford the degrees required in a service/information economy.  We see there is little incentive for developers to build housing for the lowest income bracket and regulations that make it difficult to do so.  We see housing vouchers with an 8-10 year waiting lists because there are not enough vouchers to meet the demand and not enough units once a voucher is acquired.  Or for the lucky ones that get housing support, other life issues may plague them affecting their ability to stay housed.  Those are a mix of patterns and structures.

A systemic approach involves identifying (often mapping) the system to better see the interconnected forces at play, the effects of time delays, feedback loops, and unintended consequences.  Stakeholders may then see the complex system more clearly.  They see that structures within the system are causing the same results again and again.  With that view it is easier to get to work changing those structures instead of blaming the people that are caught up in it.

Click here for a related article article by Marilyn Paul that appeared in the System Thinker: "Moving From Blame to Accountabillity."

The photo, "B is for Blame," by stephbeff is used with permission.