The Making of a Systems Thinker

Or:  How growing up on a cotton farm in eastern North Carolina shaped my understanding of how the world works and my decision to pursue innovation to achieve systems change.

When I tell people I grew up on a farm in eastern North Carolina, I can almost see the images of what that means popping into their heads. Long rows of cotton. Kids running barefoot through grassy lawns. Parents doing their best to make an honest living. A simple upbringing in a sleepy rural community.

Growing up on a family farm in a rural eastern North Carolina town, I can tell you that life in an agriculture-based community is anything but simple.

In truth, the complexity in my hometown is staggering.  Incredibly powerful forces converge in a single location: global economic shifts impacting agricultural commodity prices and trade realities; tobacco bailouts of the 1990s creating long-term, unintended consequences for tobacco-dependent communities across the state; historic yet largely unspoken and unacknowledged racial tensions; struggling schools and local economies amidst a declining population and limited job opportunities.

No, not simple at all.

Yet, through the complexity, I began to see connections among the forces at play. People around me would talk about race, poverty, health, and opportunity in isolation, while I increasingly saw them as inextricably linked. I watched, baffled, as people with so much in common claimed to be utterly distinct.

I searched and searched for the root causes of the challenges facing my beloved hometown. Yet I was left with more questions than answers, and a deep desire to better understand how we got where we were.

The quest to understand the complex interaction of forces at play in my hometown and the many communities I’ve visited since my youth propels me as the systems thinker I am today. Follow the connections. Question why. Seek out potential solutions to the challenges facing rural agrarian communities in my backyard, and across the world.

What are the lessons I’ve learned?

After 20 plus years as a systems thinker, this is a bit of what I’ve learned. My lessons are informed by numerous systems practitioners whose work has shaped my worldview just like those cotton fields of my youth.

  • Systems seek balance. If a system is in a certain state, it’s because the forces at play like it at that state. You must change the underlying forces at play if you want to change the system.
  • Healthier systems are the goal. Systems don’t get “solved.” Our best hope is that systems get healthier, creating better outcomes for those who live within their boundaries.
  • Systems require change strategies as multi-faceted as the forces at play. No single moon shots for systems change, I’m afraid. Integrated innovation strategies are the way to go. How might we hit a lever, that hits a lever, that hits two levers? That’s the question I’m constantly asking myself as a systems thinker.
  • Systems leaders aren’t born; they are made. Systems thinking skills can be learned just like any other set of critical thinking skills. Daily practice forms routines that over time become habits. After a while, you can’t recall what it was like before you were a systems thinker. You can’t not see the world as a series of connections, as a constant ebb and flow of forces and interactions.

We need better tools and approaches to understand the root causes of unhealthy systems and better ways to measure progress towards healthier systems. Institutions that care about social impact are increasingly exploring new ways to monitor and evaluate systems change, with an eye towards enhancing system health. I for one am excited to dig into Alnoor Ebrahim’s recent book Measuring Social Change: Performance and Accountability in a Complex World to see what new insight he offers.

My continuing quest as a system thinker

When I visit my hometown, signs of decline continue to reveal themselves. Another closed storefront on the main street. Another dilapidated section of housing.

And yet, I see reasons to hope that steadiness, if not a full rejuvenation, is ahead. I see my brother—hard-working and entrepreneurial—working the same fields my father worked. Yet my brother brings to his work his own flavor of digital technology and other resources that signal an appetite to do things differently.

I see subtle shifts in U.S. consumers’ desire for increased transparency and trust in their food chains, creating an opening for local producers. I see vulnerabilities uncovered by COVID-19 that demonstrate the critical necessity of robust, resilient local food systems.

Signals of the future in today’s moments? Perhaps. For now, I’m okay sitting with the unknowns and continuing my quest as a systems thinker: to see connections, find patterns, identify root causes, experiment, and do what I can to promote healthier agriculture systems and rural communities at home and abroad.

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About the author

Amanda supports our clients by aligning innovation investments with future visions for change, especially within global food and agriculture systems. Currently, Amanda co-leads a multi-year initiative to advance systems Monitoring, Learning, and Evaluation (MLE) for inclusive agricultural transformation in Africa and Asia, and provides market systems and business model innovation support for our sanitation practice. Amanda received a B.S. in Chemistry and in Interdisciplinary Studies from Amanda received a B.S. in Chemistry and in Interdisciplinary Studies from North Carolina State University and an M.S. in International Science and Technology Policy from the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University.

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