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Think of our world like a giant puzzle where every action you take creates a ripple effect, like dropping a pebble into a pond. This idea is the heart of systems thinking, a way of thinking that can change how we do new things and make them last a long time and have a big impact. You might have thought systems thinking is just for books, but two real stories, the Cobra Effect and M-Pesa, show it’s practical and useful.

The Cobra Effect: Picture a time when the government decided to get rid of cobras in the city because they were dangerous. To encourage citizens to help, they offered a reward for every dead cobra brought to them. At first, it seemed like a good idea. People started hunting cobras and turning them in for cash.

However, something unexpected happened. People soon realized they could make easy money by breeding cobras themselves. They started breeding them in large numbers to claim more rewards. When the government caught wind of this and stopped the reward program, the bred cobras had become a big problem. People released them into the city, causing a surge in the cobra population, which was much worse than the initial problem.

What’s the learning here? The danger of not considering the whole situation when making decisions. The government focused on the immediate goal of reducing the cobra population but didn’t think about the potential unintended consequences, like the breeding of cobras for profit.

M-Pesa: Now, let’s talk about M-Pesa. It’s a service that allows people to send money to each other using their mobile phones. But it did more than just make money transfers easier. It transformed the entire way money works, especially for people who didn’t have bank accounts.

Here’s how it worked: M-Pesa recognized that many people in Kenya and Tanzania didn’t have access to traditional banks. So, they created a system where people could store and transfer money using their phones, even in remote areas. This helped millions of unbanked citizens access financial services, pay for goods and services, and send money to their families.

What makes M-Pesa a great example of systems thinking is that it didn’t just look at the technology; it considered the whole economic and social system. By addressing the broader issues of financial inclusion and accessibility, M-Pesa revolutionized economies and improved the lives of many people.

So what does it show you? These examples show that considering the entire system, its interconnections, and potential consequences is crucial when making decisions and creating innovative solutions. It’s not just about the immediate goal but understanding how it fits into the bigger picture.

So how do you put these examples into practice? 

Here are some practical approaches for you:

1. Recognize Interconnections: Start by looking at the bigger picture. When faced with a problem or an opportunity, consider how different elements are connected. Think about the potential ripple effects.

2. Understand Feedback Loops: Pay attention to how actions can create feedback loops. Feedback can either reinforce or balance a system, so it’s important to recognize these loops.

3. Identify System Boundaries: Define the limits of your system. Understand where your influence starts and ends, and consider external factors.

4. Balance Inputs and Outputs: Strive for balance in what your system takes in and what it gives back. Aim for sustainability and minimize waste.

5. Embrace Complexity: Understand that systems thinking is about embracing complexity. It’s not about oversimplifying problems but acknowledging their complexity.

6. Learn and Share: Continuously learn from your experiences and from others. Share insights, questions, and knowledge to collectively better your understanding of systems thinking.

By using these practical steps and looking at real examples like M-Pesa and the Cobra Effect, you can get better at thinking in systems. It’s not just something theoretical; it’s a way of thinking that can really help you make big changes in your work and in the world.