Political Thought Leader: Zach Herbers  

When I think of the term “systems thinking,” it represents how a person or organization can approach the complexities of overlapping and often competing issues and interests that define the environment in which they operate.  

In 2020, this year of great chaos and uncertainty, it is more important than ever for leaders and organizations to think ahead as we look to grapple with the enormous disruptions and challenges that are coming from all fronts.
I entered university in a time of relative prosperity in Alberta. By the time I graduated, oil prices had collapsed, the abundance of economic opportunities had seemingly dried up, and pessimism was becoming omnipresent. Current events at all levels – global, national and local – have continued to lead our society to a point of exponential polarization and anxiety.

Since the fall of 2017, I have had the privilege to serve as the Strategic Advisor to the Mayor of Strathcona County. These have not been easy times, and working through crisis after crisis, coping with economic strife, and associated social challenges has come to largely define these past three years.  

Despite, or perhaps because of that, a significant component of my role relates to how we get from a position of scarcity to one of abundance. How do we chart a course to put us on a path to prosperity in the future by using what exists today, both the positives and the negatives, to put us on track for a brighter future?
These questions cannot be answered in isolation. Municipal government is an environment that consists of countless interests, networks and stakeholders that coexist, and often compete, with one another. To view any problem, opportunity or idea in simple isolation will result in certain failure. 

The world, just like municipal government, consists of unlimited wants, needs, and finite resources; breeding inherent conflict. Systems thinking can be a framework to overcome this by pushing leaders and organizations to avoid the trap of becoming focused only on immediate problems, and instead keep their eye on the bigger picture by working together through partnership, based on underlying shared interests. In my role, not a day goes by where we are not faced with a new challenge, concern or conflict. Without systems thinking, issues would only be addressed on a case-by-case basis, which fails to tangibly create positive progress – the equivalent of treading water. For example, we deal with countless issues that relate to interactions with our organization. Instead of just dealing with them as isolated incidents, we also study the trends. This has paved the path for concrete steps to be taken to begin the process of positive change through internal reforms with the aim of addressing root causes. 

Externally, we remain focused on creating the conditions for success, which is more important than ever in these times of economic calamity. Maintaining a competitive environment is crucial, which is the basis for fiscal prudence and organizational reforms, but it is not enough. It would be easy to say that a competitive tax climate and improved culture at the municipal level will automatically lead us to a future of prosperity, but is that true? Like any other challenge, this vision for prosperity cannot be attained in isolation. Instead, we must look to use our inherent competitive advantages to become problem solvers for others and develop a more sustainable and diversified economy as a result. In Strathcona County, this includes combining our natural advantages with a competitive
climate for investment, and leveraging networks to drive awareness to create the conditions for investment and success by understanding the true needs, concerns and decision-making criteria of all stakeholders. 

As a result of thinking in systems, the work does not stop there. We are also focused on market diversification, including with key emerging markets around the world.
We must work to build awareness of who we are and what we can offer, and look beyond the tip of the iceberg to identify root causes, trends and opportunities for mutual success. From working to bring change internally to county hall, to developing Strathcona County’s presence on the international stage, our eye must always be on the opportunities that exist just beyond the horizon. These opportunities, however, can only be made possible through partnership, collaboration and a shared vision drive for a brighter future. In short through systems thinking.