We have discussed the value of collaborations in strengthening communities. It’s a great idea, however, there is a method which increases the chances of achieving great, long-term goals. There is a process called Systems Thinking, which has helped numerous organizations work together to successfully achieve long term social change.
When you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten. Systems thinking is a way to challenge the way we normally think about fixing problems. One example given in “Systems Thinking for Social Change” was the issue of homelessness. Generally we seek funds to create temporary shelter and free food, powered by volunteers and donations. These solutions may cause more harm than good because they don’t do anything to reduce homelessness. These solutions only treat the symptom and not the cause of the problem. For example, if you are carrying a load of laundry from the dryer and up two flights of stairs only to find half of the laundry fell on the floor in the process, you will not save time by racing down the stairs to pick up laundry. You could solve the problem by using a laundry basket to carry laundry up the stairs, thereby eliminating the need to go back and pick up fallen items. Although some homeless people may receive the temporary benefits of these solutions, it does not help their long term well-being. This is an ineffective use of resources. The book suggests preventing homelessness. In one example given, an organization diverted funds from the homeless shelter and into a real estate business resulting in permanent housing. You may question the short term lack of the temporary homeless shelters but there is a long term result that will over time, reduce the amount of homelessness.
There are four conditions required for collaborations to create solutions with long term results. First they need to develop trust and understanding to come together and agree on mutually reinforcing activities. Second, they would need common goals. This consists of understanding the problems and aspirations. Third, they would need to agree on when and how to measure progress. Each organization will have it’s own role in the endeavor so in order to keep everyone on the same page, they will need to share data on their progress and failure as well as to ensure that everyone is maintaining the same goals. Finally, as in any relationship, communication is key. When everyone is consistently communicating with one another, it reduces the ability of anyone to feel slighted by another. Communication also allows room for any failures to be addressed and hopefully fixed, and for successes to be continued for the long term.
Changing the way people think isn’t always an easy task, however, if you can show them how a systems based approach works, more people will be likely to try and as a result create more effective social change.