Why We Need to Think and Act Like a System if We Want to End Homelessness, Improve Housing Options or Solve Any Other Major Social Issue

“Systems-thinking” isn’t just the flavor du jour. It isn’t a fancy way of talking about organizations working cooperatively or in partnership with one another. It is critical for addressing complexity inherent in human service systems given the diversity of service recipients, service organizations, and context(s) in which both the recipients and organizations function.

Many types of human service delivery try to figure out how to get the right person/family to the right type of service at the right time. That is a great thing. But in order to really tackle that issue, we have to accept three things:

  1. The experience of each individual/family is complex that lead them to seeking or needing service. We can neither control nor predict all of the influences on the individual/family nor the response the individual/family has to each influence.
  2. Organizing services and benefits is complicated across multiple entities. Without a “brain” function to provide influence organizations do not self-regulate and manage particularly well and are more likely to be self-centered than end-user centered. Let me put this another way…without a “mission control” function a person/family would likely need to go to or call multiple organizations to find the one that best meets their needs rather than having a central place to get that information. Throughout this process the organization is more likely to try to determine if the person/family is a good fit for their program rather than trying to determine of all the programs that exist within a particular geographic area which one is the best one based upon assessed needs.
  3. When there is an evidence-base (rather than luck or just what “feels right”) in human service delivery, the intervention side of things is actually quite simple. If person x presents with a certain condition and intervention y is provided then it is reasonable to expect z. Now “simple” doesn’t mean it is easy. Goodness knows there are no shortage of individuals and families that seeking services that exhibit a range of emotional reactions and behaviors as a result of a plethora of reasons in their life. But, separating the interpersonal interaction from the work that will achieve the most likely positive outcome is functionally different in how we go about delivering services to people.

Human service delivery is too dynamic to come to a complete standstill. Nor is the human condition such that people stop seeking/needing services for any period of time as a collective mass. Services don’t stop and people don’t stop wanting service at the same time that changes may be desired to the service delivery system.

Getting nerdy here, but Critically Systemic Discourse is valuable as we think about the collection of agents and organizations and actors therein. One of my students, Fleurie, recently reminded me of this in her Plan of Study. She notes “all systems maps and models are inherently incomplete”.

Communities don’t need a perfect system for trying to ensure that a person or family gets the best possible results from the organization best designed to meet their needs. The system will always be in somewhat of a state of flux, hopefully moving towards true continuous improvement. However, while the system will always be in motion, that doesn’t mean steps can’t be taken to improve the system as a whole while it is moving. Some advice in that regard:

  • Make sure the tool that assesses people’s needs is grounded in evidence and is oriented to getting the right person/family to the organization best designed to meet their needs.
  • Examine your assets across organizations in the community. You cannot fund the same services in the same organizations year after year and actually have a responsive system. Needs will change. So too should the service offerings and organizations delivering the services.
  • The most compelling proof of where and how the system needs to be moving comes not from the organizations but from the end users of services as well as those that tried to have service needs met but could not within the current array of service offerings. Unfortunately, policy makers are more likely to ask service providers about service gaps rather than speaking directly to those that do not have needs fully met within the current service offerings.
  • If you are serious about improving the human condition, you likely need an agent whose sole job is to move, coordinate, evaluate and challenge the system as a whole. Impartial and not tied to the funding of any particular program, this person is not beholden to existing solely for the sake of existing. As my business partner and the Founder of OrgCode, John Whitesell is quick to point out (I’m paraphrasing what he would say much more eloquently), “Never underestimate an organization’s desire for self-preservation.

About Iain De Jong

Iain is a playful nerd, hellbent on ending homelessness, increasing affordable housing, creating vibrant communities, and expanding the knowledge amongst leaders that influence social issues. Having held senior management and professional positions in government, non-profits, and the private sector, Iain has a wealth of experience and has garnered dozens of awards for his work across Canada and internationally. His work has taken him across Canada, the United States, and to Australia. In 2009, Iain joined OrgCode as its President & CEO, and in 2014 assumed full ownership of the firm. In addition to his work with OrgCode, Iain holds a part-time faculty position in the Graduate Urban Planning Programme at York University.


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