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Bigger Than a Bread Box

“When we are blind to systemic causes of problems, all the solutions we try will likely make matters worse.” – Esther Derby

Entrenched systemic issues resist cure-all approaches. Uninformed or ill-sighted feats of tackling the issues like these will rarely move the needle towards a positive or restorative solution. Such feats may not even act like a bandaid. Systemic issues require systemic solutions. Because systemic issues have many components underlying its existence, failure to recognize and tend to each of these is failing to see the whole system for what it is, and therefore failing to do much towards lasting change. 

This is true in the world at large as it is in our cultures at work and the problems we set out to solve with our companies. We don’t hire someone to come in and “fix the culture” in our organizations without considering what an overhaul of an undertaking that might be. 

“Too often we fall prey to simplistic, infantile thinking,” Jerry wrote in a piece called “New CEOs Aren’t Silver Bullets, “We project all of our wishes, dreams, and aspirations onto a single person or idea in the vain hope that they, finally, will solve our problems and calm our fears.”

“Even more troubling,” he continues, “this mythology is often built on an almost willful ignorance of the facts. If the CEO (or head of sales or head of marketing or CTO) really needs to be replaced — and, believe me, I know that is often the case — then the troubles don’t end with that one person. If the CEO needs to be replaced, perhaps the whole team they built needs to be replaced as well. Or, even more insidious, perhaps the underlying business model is wrong.” 

While there’s nothing wrong with tackling large issues, we must be clear-eyed in our ambitions. As change-makers, it’s part of our job. We must commit to seeing clearly what the real problem is and how multifaceted they are. If we can do this, we stand a chance of making a difference. Without it, the work we think we’re showing up for each day might feel incessantly Sisyphean. We get exhausted. We burn out. We become unmoored. Or, as Gregory Alan Isakov sings: our “heart’s a thousand colors but they’re all shades of blue.”

The wisdom of looking towards systemic solutions versus merely treating symptoms can ring true closer to home as well, in our relationships with others and the one we have with ourselves. Sending a child to therapy, for example, may yield different results if the parents work with a therapist first to tend to their issues and their relationship. Sometimes, when we want to change all the people in our life, we need to shine a light on our own mental models and take a look at the underlying aspects of who we are. 

Those among us who like to make things better, or solve problems, can be drawn to larger issues, or small parts of larger issues and nurse that part of ourselves that enjoys making things better. The question to ask is: are we? How can we be sure we’re seeing the forest for the trees and the entire ecology at play in creating the forest? Or, do we love the dopamine hit of doing things and the satisfaction of ticking it off the list? Finding out what’s behind what we do can pay dividends to making sure we’re in right alignment to our cause. For those with a fix-it tendency, consider asking: Who or what are you fixing? What fuels the fixing? What are you feeling when you’re fixing? What might the fixing be trying to fix about how you’re feeling?

Similarly, we might be avoiding something by looking at a pain point, thereby skirting around the much bigger issue. Sometimes, when an issue gets personal, we can avoid the hard questions that point to the hard truths. It’s convenient to bury our heads in the sand only until the pain becomes too much to ignore or build delusions around. As Jerry mentions to Forest Richter, Co-founder and CEO of, in this episode of the Reboot Podcast, nothing can be transformed until it is fully faced–personally or systemically. 

Regardless, when we’re setting out to take on a systemic problem, or any large problem in which we know great change is possible, we stand in what Parker Palmer calls the tragic gap. This is the space between the reality of where we are and what the current situation is, and the vision of the future we know or sense is possible. Standing in “the gap” requires our clear vision and being firmly rooted in what is our work to do. From here, rolling up our sleeves to change what we can change can lead to a life connected to purpose, influence towards a better solution, and making an impact. 

Unraveling systemic issues type-of-work takes endurance and fortitude. When we embark on this path, we’re entering into a conversation with many others looking at the issue and adding to the conversation towards a solution. Like most good conversations, there’s not always a one and done solution–it’s a very alive happening day in and day out. And, like most good conversations, we, individually, can make a contribution if we know what’s driving our participation in the cause. Are we compensating for something within ourselves, or are we leading with a connection to our purpose?


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