Systems thinking is often considered a broad view of all the pieces required to make meaningful change happen. It’s essential to making real change – but when we equate the system with the change, we overlook the individual players. These individual players are crucial to making change happen, and can get lost in the complexity. In a reversal of roles, we lose the trees for the forest.
A systems lens is most effective when it results in recognizing and leveraging individual contributors. In fact, if you neglect to see and recognize individuals, you aren’t really using a systems lens. True systems thinking shifts between and integrates a 50,000-foot view with a 5,000-foot view, a five-foot view, and every degree in-between. No view alone is any more complete than the other.
Take for example, Ella Baker. When people learn about the civil rights era, they are often directed to the 50,000-foot view: large, systems changes and movements that occurred. This would be the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which for the first time prohibited discrimination in employment and public accommodation on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
At the 5,000-foot view, the focus is often on Martin Luther King, Jr. and his contribution to the larger movement. The same year that congress enacted the Civil Rights Act, Martin Luther King, Jr. was awarded The Nobel Peace Prize. He became an icon of the Civil Rights Movement, and it can be easy to equate the movement and outcomes with King himself or the Act his efforts contributed to passing.
However, when we get down to the five-foot view, we see the crucial importance of Ella Baker. In a time without the internet and texting, Baker organized rallies, created and printed brochures, and generated interest from communities in advance of organized events. Without her efforts and many like hers, the movement that Martin Luther King, Jr. championed would not have advanced as it did.
Ella Baker is an example of someone who enabled change to happen, by being present on the ground. She is an inspiration for any individual working toward a larger, meaningful change – proof that each one of us does make a difference, and that we each add incredible value to the bigger picture.
People like Ella Baker help us as individuals see that regardless of how visible our role in change might be, it matters. They also remind us that we must shift between and integrate a variety of lenses for a systems approach. This ability to explore, engage, and integrate views is crucial for positive impacts.
There are some great tools available to us to explore, engage with, and integrate various systems views. To explore and access some of these, see our Tools for Social Innovators.