Susan Fairchild

Applied Systems Thinker

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Systems Thinking Archetypes: Kicking The Can Down The Road

A core tenet of systems thinking is that: “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets” (Dr. Paul Batalden). This is a pretty bold statement. For instance, if a high school graduates only 50 percent of its seniors, this suggests that the design of the entire system (of which the school is only one small part) is engineered to produce these results.

So how do we make big changes? Fortunately, systems are rather predictable. When we map out a system’s elements and the way those elements are interconnected, we know something about the behavior (i.e., the outcomes) of that system.

In fact, system structures that produce common, predictable patterns of behavior can be classified into something Peter Senge called archetypes: storylines with common, universal themes resulting in negative consequences that present over and over again. The value of these archetypes is in their...

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Engineering Value-Add: A Design-Driven Approach To School Performance

I recently worked with school leaders enrolled in the Dallas Independent School District’s “Leadership Development – Fellows Academy”. Gloria Williams, Quentyn Seamster, Garet Feimster, Christofor Stephens, Nicole Brooks, Stephanie Burns and many of their colleagues, talking passionately and urgently about their work moving students to higher levels of performance, breathed life into a concept that I had never fully internalized until my trip to Dallas: value-add.

Value-add is a necessary idea in the field of education – and yet the sterile, specialist language in which it is conveyed to those on the front lines (and then the way it is implemented via accountability structures) sometimes discourages educators from being genuinely curious and interested in this foundational concept. And while the specialist lingo certainly alienates a significant group of practitioners, it’s not just...

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The Iceberg Model

The iceberg is a metaphor often used to show that there is more leverage in changing the mental models that inform the design or structure of a system. The visible ten percent of the iceberg (events or outcomes) is the product of a system’s behavior. The most effective way to alter outcomes or change events is by understanding the 90 percent of the iceberg hidden from view.

Iceberg Image.jpg


In the language of “stocks and flows,” events are stocks or system conditions that we often seek to improve. Because they exist at a point in time, we can usually see them. They are strong signals. But when we intervene at or very close to an event, we are intervening at a place within the system that has the least leverage. Take, for example, the high proportion of New York City high school graduates who enter CUNY schools and who require remediation in literacy and math. The Center for the Urban Future...

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System Thinking 101

At New Visions, we have adopted systems thinking as a way of considering conundrums. Unlike other frameworks, systems thinking is closed loop (x causes y which causes x) as opposed to open loop (x causes y); and, it helps bring to light structures that are not easily seen but are often at the root of many vicious cycles.

Donella Meadows defines a system as “an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something.” Elements, interconnections, and function are the critical components of a system. Elements are the easiest components to identify in a system because they tend to be visible. Interconnections represent the causal relationships among the elements and determine how they will interact. Function is system behavior – how the system actually behaves; and, often there is a discrepancy between our conceptualization of system behavior...

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