A systemic problem emerges from the mutual interaction of problem riddled systems from different parts of the biomatrix. It can manifest within a specific system or be shifty and manifest differently in different systems. It can also be perceived differently by different stakeholders. For example, the problem riddled education system of many developing countries is a “mess” that emerges from the interaction of psychological, cultural, economic, political, technological, ecological, physiological, biological and physical co-factors from many interacting systems. Likewise, climate change, poverty, war, population explosion and finance crisis are messes that interact and co-produce each other.
Ackoff coined the term “mess” to describe the messy nature of a systemic problem. Other researchers talk about complex or wicked problems.
Because systemic problems emerge from the co-production of other problems, one cannot solve a problem before the others are solved. For example, population growth and poverty are interlinked and mutually co-producing. Population growth is typically not declining until there is significant economic development, while rapid population growth prevents economic growth amongst the poor.
An intervention in a mess not only makes little impact on improving the system at which the intervention is directed, but often makes it worse or creates a new problem in another (part of a) system. For example, reducing school drop-out rates does not imply improved quality of education and can increase the educated unemployment problem. Or, improvements in healthcare co-cause a population explosion.
The most perplexing and seemingly unsolvable problems of humanity are the result of emergence (e.g. poverty, war, climate change, finance crisis) from the (even well intentioned) co-production of various systems.
relevance for the change manager
Conventional problem solving methods are unable to deal with emergent problems. One cannot solve a mess unless all interacting systems change their state and behaviour in such a way that they co-produce more desirable outcomes. This involves aligning stakeholders in ideal system redesign and getting their cooperation in implementing their share of the design.
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