Over time, it has become clear that for change to become sustainable, change agents must not embed themselves as part of the system they are trying to change. If we understand how a particular system operates and visualize the incentive structures that cause certain things to happen the way they do, we can strengthen the ability of these systems to do certain things in certain desirable ways in perpetuity.
Are there any lessons we can learn from motherhood on causing holistic lasting change within systems?
Mothers everywhere transform helpless newborns into independent adults, with varying outcomes on health, social fit, career, leadership and spirituality. Mothers generally take pride when their children hit milestones and deliver significant achievements in life.
We can argue that growth is a natural process, but sociologists tell us that besides their genetic make-up, children are heavily influenced by the environment in which they grow in, and mothers largely shape this environment. A mother will ensure the child is washed, fed, treated and instructed patiently until such a time s/he will be on their own. Mothers hope that their efforts will result in well adjusted, healthy and successful adults.
Washing, feeding, treating and instructing the child are all important but not mutually replaceable activities by the mother.
What if a mother decided that it is more important to wash and keep a child clean, but not so important to nourish or educate them? The child will appear physically neat, but miss out on crucial health-boosting nutrients and the instructions that could give them a clear perspective of life and the world. The results of this choice will become evident sooner than later as the child develops preventable illnesses and falls behind in learning. Mothers know this and will strive to ensure that besides cleanliness, their children receive adequate nutrition, medical care, get a good education, and are instructed to grow as respectable, socially integrated adults.
Mothers are some of the most effective systemic change agents I know.
A system can be described as a set of interacting or interdependent component parts forming a complex or intricate whole. To achieve the outcomes listed above, mothers know that they must view the child as a whole. American author Ellen White writing in 1903 said, ‘true education … is the harmonious development of the physical, the mental, and the spiritual powers.’ To make this happen, mothers must attend to these aspects simultaneously while shifting emphasis as appropriate as the child grows or needs to arise.
We can learn a few lessons about how complex systems change, with children as complex systems and mothers as systemic change agents. These are outlined below.
Lesson #1: Observed behaviour is influenced by the underlying system structure
Robust immunity and a healthy lifestyle determine the probability of preventable illness while attitudes of respect and responsibility, coupled with the nature of education received influence professional and social integration outcomes.
When mothers take their children for measles immunization at 9 months, it’s not because they are showing symptoms of the disease but rather are aware of the potential value the immune boost will have in case they are exposed to the disease in the future. This immune boost coupled with a healthy lifestyle becomes the underlying system structure that largely influences the health condition of the child (and later adult) in latter years. This brings me to my second lesson.
Lesson #2: If you want to change the system, change the underlying structure
If a child missed the immune-boosting vaccinations at the appointed time, higher healthcare spending on adult medical care will not achieve the same level of wellness when compared to when kids are given proper immunization and are exposed to a healthy lifestyle. What is observed as an issue that needs to change today, will likely have its roots several generations ago that only got to manifest itself now.
What is observed as an issue that needs to change today, will likely have its roots several generations ago that only got to manifest itself now.
Lesson #3: Some structures are easier to change than others
However important it is to ensure children are immunized, the process of doing it is fairly uncomplicated.
It takes a little more effort to ensure adequate nutrition is available to children but much greater effort is required to instil the right attitudes that support social integration and make them become responsible, dependable adults. As such, parents treat the parts of the system structure that are easy to change as ‘low hanging’ fruits and spend more time, resources and effort on the other equally important but harder structures to change. Instilling moral values in children while an important structural change needs intensive effort to achieve.
This takes me to my fourth lesson.
Lesson #4: It is possible to achieve systemic change without achieving desired change
Effective immunization and nutrition, however important, are not sufficient conditions for individuals to enjoy total well-being as adults. Immunization and living a healthy lifestyle change the health-supporting structure of the individual. To achieve robust health, vaccines change how the body responds to pathogens and if you couple this with a healthy lifestyle, you alter the physical body structure to withstand disease. This change is systemic in nature.
However, if you wanted to ensure this child grows into a respectable, capable individual, then you need to make further changes. You will need to ensure the already healthy child has a good education, and time is spent to cultivate the right behaviour and attitude. A well-adjusted and educated child who has poor health may be unable to achieve his/her full potential owing to the high risks of ill health. In this instance, systemic change may be evident but it is insufficient to cause the kind of transformation desired.
Lesson #5: Systemic change initiates further change
When systems change, they change the behaviour manifested by that system. This change can cause further change within the system. A set of system-generated changes occur that may have either desirable or undesirable consequences.
When a child is given a good education, the experience may cause them to develop an appetite for further education – which they can fund because they are now productive. Further, the education causes the individual to provide a good if not better education for their own children thus deepening the level of education in the society in subsequent years. In this case, the structure of the system generates further changes of its own.
In a similar fashion, a mother will instruct her son on what moral values the child must cultivate. When the child grows up, she makes the choice whether or not to make the instructions a part of their own life. This choice which forms the structure that determines their own decision making will influence their own lives and the lives of their own children in subsequent generations.
Lesson #6: Influence what you have no direct control over
We can argue that some child upbringing tasks like schooling are the responsibility of the education system. However, parents have a choice as to which school will meet the needs of their children and this will influence their schooling experience. Many parents also get to choose which neighbourhood is appropriate for their children, for they know kids in the locality can heavily influence their manners, attitudes and general behaviour. They even go as far as instructing them regarding which other children they should or should not associate with.
Mothers (and all parents by extension) take responsibility for what they directly do and influence what they don’t directly do but which affects the outcomes they desire to see. They understand that if they don’t, it may interfere with their children’s overall development into healthy, responsible and well-adjusted adults.
Transforming complex systems is equally tough, requires a long term view and cannot be achieved by singular fixes or isolated action. Strategic collaborations are needed with relevant parties to ensure that processes that are key for change to happen, but over which we have no direct influence are nevertheless supporting our efforts. Investments towards understanding the underlying system structures to inform action is good value for money
Eric Momanyi is the Policy, Research, Communications and Knowledge Director at KMT. Emomanyi@kenyamarkets.org