The Overview Effect, A Catalyst for Systems Change

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By Christine PX Tan

The Overview Effect, A Catalyst for Systems Change (Part I)

"There are two young fish swimming along who happen to meet an older fish. The older fish nods at them and says: Morning boys, how's the water? The two young fish swim on for a bit and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and asks: What the hell is water?"

- David Foster Wallace1

As we ponder the significant problems of our time that span cities, countries, and our entire planet, a few questions sparked by David Foster Wallace's parable are: What is our water? What is the medium which surrounds our planetary challenges that are most pressing to solve? And crucially, are we truly aware of it?

In this four-part series, I would like to invite you to reflect on the Overview Effect as a catalyst for deep systems change in a world that urgently needs it. We will look at how the Overview Effect can catalyze change by moving us away from the mental models driving the inequalities and intolerances in our existing systems and towards the paradigms we need to flourish in a beautifully complex and interconnected world.

Our Water 

A system can be defined as an interconnected set of elements that work together for a purpose or function. Systems, thus, cannot be understood without observing the interconnections that exist between their parts.2

We are ourselves systems, and we are embedded within larger systems which we cannot ignore if we truly wish to understand ourselves and our place in this world. From our biosphere to our closest friendship circles and all the way to the biological networks that work within our bodies to keep us alive, being a part of a whole is a core element of our experience as human beings on this planet. More importantly, the fact that discrete, isolated objects can come together to produce an effect greater than their sum alone makes our world a far more fascinating, beautiful, and mysterious place. The coexisting beauty and strain of complexity can be seen in how the same non-linear interdependencies and diversity of our planet, which supports our flourishing, also increases the difficulty of mending our detrimental impact on our world's climate.

At the same time, many of the crucial issues that matter to us right now are embedded within highly complex systems - from our economies to our nations, to our climate, and more. The big challenges of our time that threaten our wellbeing are suspended in large webs of interdependence that sometimes seem impossible to untangle. Crucially, these same interconnections that create such beauty can also be why our world feels so grueling to navigate and change, even when we genuinely mean well. And to turn up the dial, our world is continuing to rise in complexity through the accelerating formation of new connections brought on by forces such as globalization, rapid urbanization, big data, and more.3 If we wish to effectively address the meaningful challenges of our time, we need to first recognize and understand the medium surrounding these problems - systems.

Leverage Points for Change 

If systems are the water that surrounds our most significant planetary problems, how do we act to change them?

Donella Meadows, a brilliant and thoughtful pioneer of systems thinking, wrote about leverage points. These can be defined as points of power where a slight shift in one thing can produce massive changes in everything else within a system.4 Leverage points are, thus, fundamental to understanding how to change systems.

Meadows identified twelve leverage points (see this resource for all leverage points), and she ranked them in the order of effectiveness in successfully intervening and changing a system. The top two most effective leverage points had to do with the deep structures that drive our systems - our paradigms, mental models, and deepest beliefs about how the world works.

In her 1999 paper, Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in A System, Meadows discusses how paradigms are the sources of systems and that it is from our mental models of the world that we create the structures and goals of systems. The systems we design, from our governments to our education systems, will always push right up against our collective beliefs about what is fair, good, and ethical.5 If a society believes that the most meaningful way to live is to generate as much wealth as possible, the systems we create will reinforce those ideals. Importantly, changing the behavior of an entire system requires changing the behavior of its agents and how they relate to each other, which can be made possible when their perspectives and beliefs evolve first.

"If a factory is torn down, but the rationality that produced it is left standing. Then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat itself."

- Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Because paradigms are the foundation of our systems, they are thus also the sources of the messes within them. Many of our well-intentioned efforts fail to cause long-lasting change because we don't go deeper into questioning our paradigms but instead focus on the more visible and manageable parts of our problems. And, failing to transform our beliefs and values today leaves us vulnerable to its reproduction in the new systems we create tomorrow.

Transforming Paradigms 

The reality is that our environments change rapidly and in ways often unpredictable to us. Faced with rapid and constant change, a strategy of maintaining the status quo can eventually be the source of our destabilization. Just as the biological evolution of species occurs to increase the chances of survival in changing environments, this is directly analogous to the social adaptation required of us. The cognitive strategies we are reluctant to let go of may be effective for a previous environment, but not the current one we are in today.

The questions we are left with are: In what ways are we maintaining mental models for past environments, as opposed to the ones that enable our flourishing in our present world? And, if we need to transform our paradigms to effectively change our systems and the perplexities within them, what are the new paradigms we need to begin to behave from?

Read Part II Here


1 This is water by David Foster Wallace (full transcript and audio). Farnam Street. (2021, January 14). Retrieved April 28, 2022

2   Finnigan, D. (2020, August 5). 1. we live in systems: Becoming aware of what surrounds US. Medium. Retrieved April 28, 2022

3  Conway, R., Masters, J., & Thorold, J. (2017, July). From design thinking to system change - the RSA. Retrieved April 28, 2022

4  Meadows, D. (1999) Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. The Sustainability Institute.

5  Meadows, D. (1999) Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. The Sustainability Institute.

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