Why Systemic Change is So Important


When you are ill, most people would agree that the doctor should treat the root of the problem, not just the symptoms. Yet much of what we do in church and mission is treating symptoms. There’s an understandable reason why this is the case.

  • It’s easier to understand and respond to symptoms. They are visible.
  • You get quick results and gratification – both the giver and the receiver.
  • You can avoid committing to longer timeframes.
  • You can avoid thinking too hard. On a surface level, it doesn’t take much to explain.

At Lead555, we believe this pandemic of easy-out, short-term thinking is sinister and is actually enabling and ensuring the ongoing survival of the problems we wish to address.

What are some of the consequences of this approach:

  • It fails to understand the inter-connected, complex nature of most problems.
  • The problems keep coming back, just like weeds when only the tops are ripped off.
  • It’s incredibly wasteful, pouring money, time, and other resources into an endless cycle of give and repeat.
  • It creates an endless status quo of dependence, without the longer harder work of building capacity and pursuing breakthroughs.

A systemic approach doesn’t ignore symptoms. But it seeks to make sense of them and get to the bottom of why they are there. Then it treats the problem at the root level. 

A simple exercise that is often used in the business world is the “5 why exercise.” Start with an issue or need or problem you want to focus on. Ask why the problem exists. When you get an answer, ask why again, of your answer, and so on. Do this at least five times. For example, you may ask, “Why are so many people on drugs in my city?”. You might answer, “Because drugs are so available.” Then ask again, “Why are drugs so available?”. Of course, there are usually numerous answers to each question. You can build a whole mind map around the exercise. You see that when we start thinking and asking helpful questions, the complex nature of the problem starts to come into focus.

It’s fun to help with one isolated problem. But the world needs more leaders, donors, helpers, and storytellers willing to expose and address the real problems and commit to intelligent projects that may take a long time to implement. When you simply help solve short-term problems because it feels good, you become part of the problem. You aren’t neutral. You help mask the real problem. And you use resources that could be used in a much better way.

At L5, we are committed to helping catalytic leaders wrestle with the systemic, deep-rooted sources of problems and then have the fortitude and endurance to follow through to the end.

We use tools and metaphors such as the iceberg model or the ant hill to help leaders dig deep. If you want to eradicate an ant hill (which can be 2 or 3 meters tall in Africa) you could just bulldoze it down flat and the ants would scatter. But it will simply reappear. Why? Because you didn’t dig deep enough to find the queen ant! 

Before we (and you) act, let’s take a little more time, think harder, and invest more carefully so that we know we are investing in systemic change. Ask yourself every time you lead, give, pray, or help: “What is the queen ant that I am wrestling with?”

Picture of Mark Orr

Mark Orr

Mark was raised as a missionary kid in Brazil. He has committed his life to helping emerging leaders be more effective, and ultimately the Church more able to carry out her Mission in the world. He has previously served in global refugee mission work. Mark and his family are Canadians, but have lived in the UK, Greece, and Uganda over the last 10 years.

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