Linda Booth Sweeney: Illuminating a Complex World

I’m profiling some of the people I’ve been most inspired by recently.

My first conversation with Linda Booth Sweeney in April of 2020 was a memorable one — it felt as if every sentence she spoke forged another neural connection in my head. Systems thinking explains so much about what’s hard and what’s powerful about entrepreneurship, about living systems, about bridging between organizations! It’s been my privilege to talk with Linda many times since then. In October, she raised her hand to serve as a Discussion Host at the Corporate Accelerator Forum (CAF) Annual Meeting. CAF members found her session so meaningful that we felt compelled to share her story and her work more broadly! 

Thirty years ago, Linda Booth Sweeney was a Director at Outward Bound in New York City. Returning from an expedition one day, she found a gift from a co-worker on her desk: Peter Senge’s Fifth Discipline. The discovery of the integrative power of systems thinking set Linda’s path. 

Systems thinking was already an established field with strong foundations in computer modeling. Linda caught an early insight, grounded in her Outward Bound experience: While computer-based modeling could be powerful, the basics of systems thinking could be found in nature and didn’t require a PhD to understand. As a doctoral student at Harvard University, she showed that even young thinkers could grasp the concepts and use them to make better decisions. Linda took it as her mission to bring systems thinking to the world as a tool for change.  

Linda wrote the first volume of her book, The Systems Thinking Playbook: Exercises to Stretch and Build Learning and Systems Thinking Capabilities, in 1995. Dennis Meadows joined her a few years later as co-author on volumes 2 and 3. The Playbook proposes a series of experiential games designed to provoke insight systems, and about what we miss when we make assumptions about how things work. The authors, with Gillian Martin-Mehers, followed up with the topic-focused Climate Change Playbook in 2016. Still in active use in 2020, Systems Thinking Playbook aficionados recently gathered to uncover how to use these games online.  

Linda carried forward her commitment to expose systems thinking ideas to young minds through her teacher’s guide, When a Butterfly Sneezes: A Guide for Helping Kids Explore Interconnections in our World through Favorite Stories, published in 2001. Linda regularly works with teen education and activism groups, guiding them through hands-on exercises that transform their systems from abstract and conceptual to concrete, visible, and even tactile. 

Today, Linda’s focus is helping people learn in and about complex systems. 

Witness: Recently Bridgespan Consulting tapped Linda to support the Pay What It Takes initiative. Linda worked with the Bridgespan team to co-create a series of systems maps to help key foundations trace the impacts of chronic underfunding of overhead, AKA the nonprofit starvation cycle. Their aim was to study something called the non-profit starvation cycle. Non-profits and foundations are locked into a pattern in which non-profits ask for, and foundations provide, funding for programs with carefully analyzed, thorough and specific budgets. Operational costs for the organization are less considered — generally tacked on as a standard percentage of program costs. As a result, non-profits tend to be starved on the operations side, stunting their growth and limiting their impact.  

It’s tempting to think of this as a “vicious cycle” that starts with the non-profit asking for less than they actually need. Or perhaps you’re more inclined to blame the foundation (the resource owner) for locking down an arbitrary limit. Linda says: Watch out for that trap! A loop, in system terms, doesn’t start anywhere! That’s why it’s called a loop!  

Remember the water cycle from elementary or middle school? Where does the water cycle start? Who is responsible for it? 

No actor in the non-profit starvation cycle is individually to “blame,” any more than one element of the water cycle is responsible for the whole thing. You have to look at the entire system to make change. No non-profit wants to draw foundation ire by admitting that their actual costs are higher than a standard percentage. So foundations don’t receive this crucial feedback. At the same time, no foundation wants to use operating costs to make decisions — they’re inspired by funding programming, not indirect costs. So they prefer to use a standard rate, and they don’t ask for details. 

Foundation participants proposed a solution, developed with Linda’s guidance.  In this model, the loop would be organized around transparent communication of costs and/or benchmarking across non-profits doing similar work. Foundations would then cover the actual recognized indirect costs, rather than locking in an arbitrary percentage.  

It’s easy to think of analogous starvation loops that might exist or arise between startups and VCs (or corporates), or between corporate innovation teams and their stakeholders.  

Making the system visible is a crucial component of change — but the real leverage comes from a shared vision. In Linda’s framing, any event that catches our attention (e.g., an impactful non-profit goes under due to lack of operational funding) is just the tip of the iceberg. We tend to react as if the event stands alone. We can dig deeper to see the underlying pattern, how that pattern rests on a system structure we need to make visible. Once we can see the system, we can develop a mental model that is changeable, and ultimately a shared vision. The real leverage for making change comes from that shared vision.

To see your system, try this:

*Lay out a map of stakeholder relationships. Who connects directly to whom? Which relationships are moderated by a third party? 

*Map your resource flows. How do money, time, materials, impact, and value move through the network of stakeholders? Where are the bottlenecks? Where does the flow of one resource tend to increase or decrease another?  

*Consider: What feedback loops are involved in your system? Where are those loops serving you and not?  

Read more about Linda here. Linda is open to meeting new folks interested in systems thinking projects, feel free to contact her directly at Linda at LindaBoothsweeney.net. And watch for more CAF/Linda collaboration in 2021 as we dig deeper into systems!  

The Corporate Accelerator Forum gathers corporate innovators who work with startups — follow us for knowledge sharing opportunities, frameworks, workshops and more!

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