5 mins


This is the first in a series of articles by Gareth Corser, our system thinking expert, that will look at how system thinking can help your organisation and/or team deal with their biggest challenges. 

Why change fails: Are we dealing with problems or symptoms? 

Peter Senge, one of the great system thinkers created a set of 11 rules of system thinking. Amongst them is, “Today’s problems were yesterday’s solutions”. That is, all our time, energy and effort we put into projects to address our challenges are often addressing the challenges created by the time, energy and effort put into previous projects our organisations have undertaken.  

A system thinker would point out that the reason for this circular nature of our biggest challenges is because many of the interventions, projects, actions and decisions that leaders undertake are designed to address symptoms rather than underlying problems.  

How might we avoid this? Use the clues below to determine whether your actions are merely dealing with symptoms or are likely to have a lasting, positive impact. 


CLUE ONE: The Size of the Problem Isn’t Commensurate with the Discussion Around It. 

Is the problem too small in comparison to the time and energy it is taking? If people are spending all their time, for example, complaining about the ordering process for test kits or the layout of the clinic, you can assume that their reaction is a symptom of another problem. 

CLUE TWO: People Don’t Solve a Solvable Problem. Is it within the power of the people in your organisation or team to solve the problem, but they don’t? For example, people complain there is poor communication, but no one does anything about it. Rather than a project to improve communication, we should start by seeking to understand why they don’t feel empowered to change the status quo? 

CLUE THREE: The Problem Won’t Go Away. What has the history of the problem been? Is it something that won’t go away? Have you tried to solve it and have been unsuccessful? Does it keep coming back, like a monster in a horror movie? Does the problem morph into a related issue once you “solve” the original issue? Generally speaking, if you “solve it” and it comes back, then you haven’t addressed the underlying problem. 

CLUE FOUR: The Problem Involves Emotional Barriers. In the Middle Ages, sailors were afraid to sail south of the equator. Contrary to popular belief, they weren’t afraid of falling off the edge of the world. (The ancient Greeks had proven that the world was round in about 500 B. C.) They were unwilling to do it because it hadn’t been done before. Sailors never even considered it a possibility. As such, it was an emotional barrier. The same kinds of emotional barriers are present in today’s organisations. What are the things that are never talked about or people change the subject if it is raised? What are the things that, if someone mentions them, people laugh them off? Do people rush to blame? Do we have myths about why others are the problem? 

CLUE FIVE: The Problem Has a Pattern. Does the problem have an annual cycle? Is it predictable? If so, it may be a symptom of something deeper. You should also be seeking to understand what prevents you from seeking a sustainable solution and/or putting off taking time to understand the causes better. 

CLUE SIX: The Organisation/Team Has Kept the Problem Around, like a Pet. We keep complaining about a problem, we curse it, hate it, talk about it and yet cannot let go of it. In a healthy organisation/team, if a problem arises, people solve it once and for all. Unhealthy organisations/teams need problems because they give people something to focus on and fuss about. No one consciously tries to keep the problem, and everyone says they want to solve it. However, even though we may not be aware of it, we manage to keep the challenges we like! 

Have we promoted people because they are good crisis managers and thus “we love a good crisis around here”? As Senge also points out “proactiveness is often reactiveness disguised”. 

CLUE SEVEN: Other Stresses and Anxieties Are Present in the Organisation/ Team. The more anxiety in an organisation/team, the more likely it is that real problems are hidden, manifested only in symptoms. For example, in healthcare organisations with a command-control culture, employees can feel victimised and blamed by management. Most people, when feeling victimised and blamed, will complain about other things rather than reveal their true feelings. The more stresses that are present, the more likely there will be a variety of seemingly unrelated symptoms. 

CLUE EIGHT: As One Problem Is “Solved,” Another Crops Up. In an organisation/team that relies on reactive, quick-fix, cause-and-effect management, once one problem is solved, another tends to crop up. Most linear thinkers won’t realize that the two issues are related. Meanwhile, the underlying dynamics perpetuating the problems fail to be addressed. 

All this means that our organisations and teams need system thinkers, those who seek to understand connections, links and relationships rather than liner cause-and-effect thinkers.  

If you are interested in how system thinking approaches could help your organisation/team, please contact Gareth Corser 


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