Monday, June 29, 2020

Closed versus open system in the current world

Eddie Dean, a restaurateur and philosopher in Dallas, occasionally sends me notes that make me think. This morning it was about open verses closed systems. He’s sent me similar notes before since this is a topic we’ve frequently discussed.

And over the past few weeks I’ve spent considerable time with my friend, George Thompson, talking about the difference between a learning organization, which is an open system, and bureaucracies, which are closed systems. It's always interesting to me how different conversations with very different people will coalesce like that.

Of course, my own work is about accountability, which has a considerable opinion on these topics as well and is the lens I choose.

Accountability in a closed system is about the rules. Increasing accountability means finding new ways to hold those within the organization to account. We have two massive closed systems that society is asking some pretty serious questions about at this very moment: policing and attitudes about race and our racist history. If we continue to treat both as closed systems, which we have for a very long time, we’ll add some rules to policing and some training on racial sensitivities and call it good.

What is so interesting and compelling—and unnerving to those who are comfortable within the old closed systems—is the nature of the current calls for change. They are not to add rules or ask people to please play nice, but to trade out those old closed systems for open systems, to point out that no matter how many more rules or trainings are thrust into the old systems that won’t solve the problem.

I often point out that whatever result we get it is because we are in a system that is perfectly designed to deliver that result. Policing in its current incantation is currently designed with force as a primary tool of control, so we shouldn’t be surprised when force is used. Our race relations in this country are currently designed to marginalize non-white people economically, socially, historically, and educationally—with one result being a disproportionate use of force on non-whites. So, we shouldn’t be surprised when those systems work exactly as designed and create that marginalization and a disproportionate use of force.

Our solutions of holding the police more accountable through rules on chokeholds or holding society accountable through things like affirmative action or non-discrimination ordinances, are perfectly rationale responses from within those systems—and infinitely better than nothing. But they leave the problem intact by functioning within the old closed system.

What is being declared right now is that we need new systems but based on a very different design that is capable of learning and growing and changing as we learn and grow and change. That is the novel piece of what is happening now, and what gives me a real sense that a better way may finally be possible.

School and by extension how we do school accountability are closed systems. Conversations about how we do schooling and school accountability are about more or different rules within that system, more control when things don’t go policy makers’ way, and a strange obsession with making things like they once might have been years ago. The same is true for our traditional approaches to police reform or race relations. A return to how we imagine things were yesterday seems preferable for some than looking ahead to the uncertainties that come with possibility.

But that past is gone. It's dead, and good riddance in so many ways. We can do better, which will require a willingness to embrace open systems, which will require us to embrace the concept of a learning organization in our policing and race relations and our schools, and to realize that until we do the future is at risk of looking an awfully lot like the past.

I’m looking forward to it.