As creatives, we’re constantly looking for new ways to innovate and transform systems. What if there was an easier way that also increases your chances of success?
Introducing systems balancing.
Systems balancing is the use of simple, low-effort strategies to change a system’s behavior. With a light touch, systems balancing guides the natural tendencies of the system toward the outcomes we want.
The approach can dramatically increase both the creativity and the success of the solution. And because the system remains in balance, the benefits are more sustainable.
But why is this needed, and how is it different from regular problem solving?
Problems in self-organizing systems
All socio-technical systems and natural systems self-organize. In self-organizing systems, problems arise because they bring the system into balance. Sometimes they’re a side-effect of the system balancing itself.
What we label as a problem is actually a solution for the system. If we tackle it as a “problem”, that can lead us down the wrong track.
Self-organizing systems balance themselves by seeking the easiest, lowest-energy state they can find. You can think of it like water spilling onto peaks and valleys: The water will always seek the lowest point that it can reach. In physics this is called the law of entropy.
Much of the seemingly dysfunctional behavior of systems comes from that self-balancing.
For example, graffiti is a common problem in cities. But it also serves a balancing role in the urban ecosystem:
- It brings neglected public spaces into balance with claimed spaces.
- It brings disempowered people into balance with more powerful and visible residents.
The standard mindset
The standard problem-solving mindset simply sees graffiti as a problem that needs to be eliminated.
Solutions from this mindset include anti-graffiti laws and removing the graffiti quickly. These work, but they require enormous amounts of effort to enforce. The effort never ends because the solutions fight against the natural self-balancing tendencies of the system.
Solutions generated by these standard problem-fighting mindsets tend to perpetuate the problem, because problem-fighting works at the symptom level while ignoring the causes that feed the problem. It’s like constantly pumping water out of a boat without fixing the leak.
The systems balancing mindset
The systems balancing mindset achieves goals more easily and sustainably by working with the natural tendencies of systems instead of fighting them.
As an example, innovative solutions to graffiti have succeeded by filling public walls with colorful hand-painted murals by local artists, including the graffiti artists themselves.
Murals prevent graffiti by simultaneously decreasing incentives for graffiti and increasing incentives for alternative constructive behavior.
- They bring value and ownership to a previously neglected space, instead of maintaining the neglect.
- They camouflage potential graffiti, instead of maintaining a blank canvas that spotlights graffiti.
- They provide an outlet for creative expression by the graffiti artists, instead of suppressing it.
- They bring residents together and make them feel proud about their community, instead of maintaining the alienation that fosters graffiti behavior.
These properties of the mural solution tip the balance of the ecosystem from promoting graffiti to promoting constructive behavior. They switch the system into a different mode of operation.
Compared to the standard solution of arresting graffiti artists and sandblasting walls, the mural solution is life-affirming and inspiring.
Benefit for innovators and change agents
Instead of seeing a problem as a pain point, this approach reframes the problem as a feature that balances the system.
The new frame in systems balance allows us to see problems from the viewpoint of the system, which is the only way to get true control of the problem. Systems don’t care whether their behavior is a problem for us. They only care whether they’re balanced in a lowest-energy state.
To see things from the system’s viewpoint, we need to take the same nonjudgmental stance as the system. Building on that starting point of non-judgment, we can go even further and develop compassion for the actors in the system. Then we can better understand motivations, which leads to more creative and effective solutions.
Innovators and change agents can use this reframing technique to discover points of leverage in self-organizing systems. It helps us understand the game rules and self-balancing processes of systems. We learn to work with the life force instead of against it.
The approach also increases real-world success of innovation ideas.
- Creative visions can be so compelling that we forget their success depends on transformations in their ecosystems. When innovations fail, it’s often because the innovator didn’t clearly work out an effective transformation path to the visionary end-state.
- In the systems balance approach, the problems, solutions and transformation paths are more clearly connected to each other. You’re thinking about design and strategy at the same time, in relation to each other. So you’re more likely to get a good transformation path along with your end-state solution.
The approach can be used to generate creative ideas directly, or it can be used in conjunction with “What if” thinking to come up with execution levers for visionary solutions.
This approach is one of several key levers for innovation and creativity that I teach in my training program in Advanced Applied Thinking.