My Systems Lens

In EWB, we focus a lot on systems thinking. We push ourselves to understand how the entire system works, how different parts and processes interact with each other. We recognize that any ‘problem’ is part of a greater system, and likely influenced by that different parts and people in that system more than what is immediately apparent. Likewise, any ‘solution’ will also have to fit into that complex system, where that ‘fit’ is not as perfect as designed, and where there are always unintended effects or consequences.

What I’ve come to learn is how easy it is to be wrong in doing systems analysis, no matter how conscientious we are. Time and time again, I make mistakes in trying to map out the system; I make mistakes trying to draw out the: interactions and players; motives, influences and push/pull factors; cultural influences; and, predicted outcomes, disturbances, or resilience.  In Ghana, my Canadian intuition for how systems and processes work is next to useless. I tend to rely heavily on this intuition and in Ghana, it has been wrong too many times to count.

I used to believe that one of the biggest values of foreign workers in a system is the bringing of new eyes, or lens. It is sometimes easier for people outside the system to identify opportunities and threats, be more neutral and objective, right? But, in fact,I have wondered many times since coming to Ghana, if this is actually valid. If my starting systems lens is so different than the context I am in, can I really add value? Or do I just try to force things so that the system seems familiar to me? Will the things I think up be feasible, sustainable? What parts of the system will I remain blind to? What relationships, power dynamics, incentives do I not understand?

At the end of the day, you can only learn from your errors, adjust your system view and try again. Really, with every new piece of information  you receive, you are adjusting your own model.

My mental model has changed a lot in the last eleven months, my intuition becoming more Ghana-grounded, my skills and knowledge tuned to what is useful in the Ghana system context. I’ve come to know that the chaos of the Tamale taxi rank is not in fact the chaos that my Canadian lens might conclude, but a perfectly functional machine, granted with no margin for error, through my Ghanaian lens.

taxi rank


3 thoughts on “My Systems Lens

  1. Great post J! I love that you are questioning the very foundation of EWB: what value do we truly bring to the systems working working in/on? I would love to explore this more. Well-written!

  2. You’re speaking to the heart of the idea of ‘development’ here. There’s always a concept of bringing an outside view into development work, with an eye to improve current conditions, whether you’re using a systems lens or not.
    Definitely something to think about.

    Welcome back.

  3. Amazing perspective to share Alex!
    From working in a Canadian Ventures with Youth, I question myself sometimes through my lens as an engineer and question how that is effective or conflicts with the theories I make about the present systems. It can be such frustrating work some times for sure.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

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