Listening to the System

By Natalie Irons, Associate Director, Instructional Coaching, UCLA Center X

Last week provided a lot of opportunity to reflect on thinking in systems as I met with various groups of coaches, administrators and healthcare providers. Each group was looking to achieve some result; the coaches wanting to find the capacity to support teachers with burnout, the administrators looking to have productive teams, and the healthcare providers hoping to provide greater trauma support.

Each of these systems, education and healthcare, have all the aspects of a system: the elements, the interconnections, and a function or purpose to produce or achieve some result. What is clear within each of these systems is that the results have come from the very ways we have structured the system, whether we intend the desired results, or not. Could this be part of why we have such high teacher burnout, or why teams of educators make quick decisions as they attend to increasing duties, or why healthcare providers want to address the impacts of trauma on both physician and patient well-being and health? Our systems seem to not be able to handle the load.

Donella Meadows author of Thinking in Systems writes that we have a lot to do “…as soon as we stop being blinded by the illusion of control” (p. 169). She also posits that “before you disturb the system in any way, watch how it behaves” (p.170). When I step back and listen and observe, I can see the behaviors, the patterns over time and the underlying ways the system is structured. As a coach, I can ask questions that might illuminate what is happening deep within the systemic patterns that perpetuate inequities and reinforce stressful environments that may be re-traumatizing.

Here are some of the questions I have been asking myself of my own place in a system, and then have begun to ask of others in their systems:

  • What are some of the behaviors within your system that are repeated?
  • How might behaviors be noticed over time? Is there a time of day, or particular day of the week or month that shifts the behavior?
  • When you observe the behaviors in your system, what do you notice about who responds? What are some of the impacts? What might be the ripple effects?

While these questions may not immediately bring a solution to light, they may provide just enough of a pause to recenter our capacity to rethink and redesign a solution that has the impact we intend.