Systems Thinking

Systems Thinking For Positive Outcomes

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Episode 164 – Child care can be an isolating field where professionals are siloed in their work. In this episode, Lisa Guerrero, Co-Founder of Positive Spin, shares her work on systems thinking to bring more connection between professionals in the field. She talks to us about shifting from a mindset of being subjected to the system with no agency, towards seeing each person as part of a system of leaders that can have an impact and lead positive change.


Episode Transcript


People are connecting to their sense of purpose and creating allies and lessening that sense of “Us versus Them”. And it not only empowers people on an individual level to have that experience but it also engages the system in a new way and fuels and energizes it in a way that creates hope and possibility.


Lisa, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!


Hi! Thanks, Ron!


We are delighted today to have on the Podcast, Lisa Guerrero. She’s an early-childhood professional development specialist.  She has studied early-childhood education over many years, including a Bachelor’s [and] a Master’s [degrees]. And she’s also studying her Doctor of Philosophy in education leadership policy and change.

We’re going to talk to Lisa today about early-childhood leadership development. Lisa, let’s start out learning why you got into early-childhood education and why you’re so passionate about leadership in early-childhood education.


Sure. I think my passion for leadership really sort of evolved as my own professional development did. I started… and you can sort of see in my focus areas that through my education I started off as a teacher. So, my undergrad is in teaching early-childhood in elementary education. And the more aware of myself as a teacher I became, the more curious I started to become about sort of leadership, the more administrative side. As I was developing as a teacher of young children I was also developing as a teacher of adults because I ended up getting my bachelor’s degree later on in my in my life.

So, I began to wonder how to have the bigger impact, right? Like, I understood my impact as a teacher. I wanted to understand my impact as a leader. And so then my Master’s degree ended up to be in Administration. And again, always with this sort of thinking of, “Okay, now I understand the system from a teacher perspective and from an administrative perspective.”

And with that question being, “How can my work have the biggest impact?” I really began to see in my own development how policy really dictates how much success we can achieve in the work that we do with children and families. And so I became curious about that, right? Like, how does policy and leadership at a state level and at a federal level really shape the work that we do?

And so I just continued to ask questions that evolved my thinking around that that idea of wanting to impact in the greatest way. And I ended up landing in leadership development and policy development. What was interesting in that is that when I got as far as understanding the system and the policy system, what I ended up bringing myself back to was this idea that the system is made up of the individuals that work within it. And so that pulled me back to that individual level and recognize that whether or not the people in our workforce and in our field carry a formal leadership role I really began to think about how important it would be to have all of us identify as a leader, as an individual, so that we can work together as a system to really lead our work forward into the future.


Yeah, and that’s a really important concept, is just the idea that everyone in early-childhood education is and can be a leader. And it can influence… whether you’re influencing a whole organization a whole field or a single child in your classroom that could be super impactful.

And one of the words you use there a couple times was “systems”. And so, something that I have heard you speak about is “Systems Thinking” when it comes to leadership development and complex change. Can you tell us what that means?


Sure. I like to think of “Systems Thinking” as recognition that every change within in the whole system creates change throughout the system, right? And that can be a small change in a person’s individual practice; it can be a change in policy. And I think it’s just that recognition that we’re all interconnected, that it’s not… the system isn’t something that is outside of ourselves. It’s, like, an understanding that we actually are the system. It’s not [that] the system is something different than we are.

So I think that that little shift in thinking changes the way that we can engage with the system when we recognize that every decision we make impacts every other part of the system. And it’s really supporting people with moving away from thinking of a system as a machine and moving toward more, like… because you get into that head [space of], “Oh, the system’s broken, we need to fix it.” And that’s sort of the machine thinking.

But if we move instead toward an “eco” system where it’s, like, “Oh, I am participating in the system and therefore every move I make has the potential to change the system for better or worse,” it sort of invites intention and possibility into the decisions that we can make. And I think that Systems Thinking then opens us up to sort of stepping into our power to create change.


That’s interesting. So it’s kind of like changing your mindset from, “We’re in the system,” versus, “We are the system”?


Yeah, exactly. And it moves us away from “Us versus Them”, right? We hear a lot of stories – “we” meaning my business partner and I as we travel around supporting people within the field and within the workforce – we hear stories that sort of evoke this feeling of “the System”, in quotes, or “the State”, or “They”. “They are doing this to us,” right? And it’s just this interesting piece. It’s as though many of us in the work that we do have separated ourselves from the system. And it becomes this “Us versus Them” where, like, in the work that I do I invite people to sort of move into a different way of thinking about their relationship to the system.


Very cool. And so what’s the benefit to us, in terms of changing this mindset?


Sure. I think that, given that there is so much complexity in the current reality of the work that we do, if we’re going to actualize change and move toward a better future for the children and families that we serve and for our workforce I think that by Systems Thinking we’re bettering our odds of success, right? When you’re talking about complex change, oftentimes complex change fails because we’re not engaging all parts of the system.

So, when you when you move toward complex change with Systems Thinking in mind you get to examine your work through different lenses, right? So, you’re benefiting by testing your assumptions, right? There are common stories that we hear and that we tell ourselves that become our reality. And oftentimes feelings are not necessarily facts. And some examples of the stories that I hear as I support members of our field and of our workforces: like, “Nobody understands what we do.” Or, “The people making decisions for us have never worked this job.” Or, “They’re trying to push us out of the field,” right?

And so we adopt these attitudes that become our reality and they become our story that we tell ourselves about the work that we do. But they’re not necessarily true. And I think this was an “A-ha!” moment for me because I am well respected in the field and amongst the people doing the direct service. I’m also well respected at the policy level. And so I see my responsibility as bridging the gap between the two. And what I found astounding was that I could hear because of the different roles I played in the system that we’re all on the same page, that we all have the same beliefs. And the same the same commitment is throughout the system.

And yet these stories we tell ourselves are keeping us from really being able to connect with each other, which we need to do in order to move forward with the kind of work that we have ahead of us. So, challenging those assumptions really puts us in a position of being able to create that team, to create allies and keeps us from being sort of stuck in a fixed mindset. And it moves us from feelings to facts.


That’s interesting. So, you’re kind of saying [that] on an individual level – this is generalization, but – people are oftentimes on the same page, let’s say, in terms of the change they want to have an early-childhood education. But when you kind of roll it up and think about it at a system level sometimes there can be some miscommunication or misunderstanding in terms of what people’s goals or intentions are.


Yeah, and I think that when you open yourself up to Systems Thinking it becomes a dialogue instead of a debate. And it really helps to create a shared commitment or at least make that hared commitment more evident rather than getting stuck in that “Nobody understands me,” or, “I am the only one thinking this way.” Because I think that perpetuates a feeling that is prevalent throughout our system and that is isolation, right?

Like, if you convince yourself that no one understands the work you do and nobody’s out there rooting for you and nobody’s ever done the work that you do and they’re making decisions for you, that sort of creates that isolation. And we’re not going to get this work done if everybody is feeling isolated. And that contributes to the fragmentation that we see throughout the system. And so really just trying to break down those barriers and recognize that everybody’s role is really important within the system and asking that every member of that system create room for everybody.

And that’s not easy work. It’s not to say that, like, “All we need is Systems Thinking and all the problems will be solved.” As a matter of fact I think a lot of times we avoid Systems Thinking because having everybody involved in the work can be very messy, right? And we’re very accustomed to sort of a hierarchical [structure] or a culture of compliance versus one that invites inquiry and invites feedback and invites engagement. And so there’s a lot of shift that needs to happen through out the system in order to help those of us in the workforce engage at this level.


And it reminds me – to sort of bring it back to an individual, human level – of somebody that’s very inspiring to me who’s been on the Podcast before and her name is Liz Huntley. And in Alabama she had a really tough childhood. And somebody in the area, they decided to open a preschool, which was something that you never would have thought would have happened. And the teachers there had such an impact on her life. And her sort of motto coming out of that for early-childhood education is, “Be a game-changer.” And the people who decided to open that preschool and the teacher who had such an impact on her life, they were game-changers.

And I think they kind of had that mindset that you’re talking about in terms of, “If we’re not working, we’re not in the system.” And if you think about, “The system’s not working because there’s no preschool here.” They were thinking, “We are the system. We’re going to create the preschool. We’re going to create this great experience for these children who don’t have access to it right now.”


Yes, I appreciate that story. I think it is a great example of exactly what I’m talking about. And what I hear there, as well, is that they identify themselves as the system and then took that and turned it into leadership, right? I think that it’s really… what has been made evident in the work that I do is that members of our workforce have a hard time moving toward thinking of themselves as a leader or thinking of themselves as an advocate.

And so that’s become a lot of the focus of my work, is to help people identify the ways in which they already have excellent leadership qualities and already are exhibiting excellent advocacy skills and helping them to recognize that they play that role of leader in their community. They have the capacity already. So, when we’re asking them to play a leadership role or to advocate for themselves or for children and families it’s not outside of what they already do. It just… I find that it feels really big for people and they’re, like, “Oh, that’s not me.”

And so helping people to connect to those parts of themselves that already exist I think ends up empowering them and invites them to engage because they’re more connected to their sense of purpose.


So, let’s talk a little bit more about the more practical side of things and how we can support early-childhood educators with adopting this type of thinking.


Sure. Really, I think the approach that I use in my work is based on that thinking that the systems are made up of individuals. And so really pulling it down to thinking about true systems level change beginning at that individual level.

And so like I was just describing, one of the steps in that is supporting individuals with recognizing themselves as leaders. And another piece of it is something that we brought up a little earlier is helping them to recognize that they are the system and actively breaking down those [thoughts of] “Us versus Them” and identifying allies. I think those are the three pieces.

And I’ve actually developed an 18-hour training model with my colleague and business partner called the Empowerment Project. And these are the three things that we really support the workforce with doing and sometimes [in] some playful ways and offering them some opportunities for self-reflection, connecting them to different parts of the system.

I think the most powerful is the creating of a vision statement, right? Like, we all played different roles throughout the system. And taking the time to develop a common vision so that we can go off into our different parts of the system but all know that, like, “Hey, we’re on a team. Even though I’m not with you day-in and day-out we’re all trying to achieve the same vision.” And that takes that that team mentality, the recognizing that that it’s not “Us versus Them”.

And so I think a key part of helping people develop Systems Thinking is really helping them to be honest with themselves about the assumptions that they’re carrying, the stories that they’re telling themselves that might be able to be challenged. Some of the thinking [and] the internal barriers that are keeping them from connecting and engaging in leadership or in advocacy roles are really some of those key parts of helping them to engage in a new way.


And who’s typically going through this training program?


Well, what is great about the work that we’re doing is that it’s really meant to be all parts of the system. And by “system” I don’t only mean [the] early-childhood system. I mean, like, the whole social system. If you think about it, the work that we do is really embedded in other parts of the system.

And so another great thing about that piece of Systems Thinking, helping you to sort of pull out of that feeling of isolation, it also helps you realize that the work that we’re doing is not our responsibility alone. As I help people to design their vision statements you start to see that we are embedded in the work of the health field; we’re embedded in the work of the mental health field; we’re embedded in the work of social services, right? In the work that early-childhood educators do we are privy to all of the social issues through the lives of children, which is pretty intense, right? And so connecting to all of those different parts of the system is really important.

So, the Empowerment Project works best when we have all stakeholders around the table. And what we do is we end up creating what I like to call an “innovation lab”. I don’t know if you’re familiar with “social innovation labs”, but what it is, we look at the current reality of early-childhood education from the perspective of everybody around the table. And from there we start to generate solutions based on everybody’s different perspective of what works and what doesn’t work and the experience that they’ve had.

And so it’s this opportunity to really practice putting into action Systems Thinking . So, it’s not just, “Here, we’re telling you all about how great Systems Thinking is and you should adopt it.” But within that 18 hours together we’re actually creating a lab through which you can connect to other parts of the system, have your ideas represented and a platform to practice using your voice and stepping into your power. So, the more people involved, the better.

And Alan and I travel around the state doing this work. And we’ve actually tapped into a couple of national conferences, as well. And it’s just really powerful when you have all of those different perspectives and levels of the system coming together. And you can just feel that that energy is being created and people are connecting to their sense of purpose and creating allies and lessening that sense of “Us versus Them.” And it not only empowers people on an individual level to have that experience but it also engages the system in a new way and sort of fuels and energizes it in a way that creates hope and possibility.


And it really resonates with me, hosting the Preschool Podcast, because I hear about your story and what you’re doing and then I hear so many other stories about people doing similar but different things in other states and other places. And it’s kind of that exactly what you’re saying, is people that are owning the change in and saying, “We are the system and we’re making that positive impact.” And so I’m feeling that when I do the Podcast episodes, which is really cool.


And I think that we probably also share the feeling of, “I feel like this work that I do is my own self-care,” right? Like, people say, “Oh, I don’t want to engage in this way. It’s more work.” And I say, “Well, it’s a different kind of work, though. It’s one like energizes you and connects you.”

And I think what I have found… I call it “Team Human”, right? Because we hear a lot about the barriers that are keeping us from being able to achieve success or all of the terrible things that are happening in the world. And it can start to weigh on us, especially when we’re sort of finding ourselves in survival mode many days of the week.

And I think in your role of connecting these people and in my role of connecting the people who are actually engaged in creating the change, in sort of figuring out these new, innovative ways of coming together and energizing each other, what it’s helped me to realize is that good outnumbers evil. There are so many people out there doing good work, amazing work that aligns with my principles, my values and with that shared vision and commitment that we all have. And really it fuels me to continue to do this work.

And as you know some of the work that I do with Ellen [Drolette] focuses on self-care and burnout. And I see this connection this understanding of how you’re connected to all of these various parts of the system and being able to focus on what’s working and building allies around what’s working instead of sort of living in isolation and being stuck in your thinking about what’s not working is such a different level of engagement and a different kind of energy that we’re putting out into the world.


Yeah, that’s a really good point about the positive energy. And I was just thinking, maybe that’s one of the reasons I’m doing the Preschool Podcast, subconsciously. But I certainly get a lot of energy out of it, talking to people that are doing amazing things.


I was just going to say, it reminds me also of, within the Empowerment Project we talk about the “appreciative inquiry” approach. And one of those is, what you focus on becomes your reality, right? And the word you use becomes your world. And focusing on what’s working, then you can look around and build on that. And it’s just a different to problem solving and to working together.


Totally, totally. And if I’m listening to this podcast and I want to find out more about the Empowerment Project, Systems Thinking or I just want to have a conversation with you, perhaps, what’s the best way to get in touch with you or to find out more information?


I would say to visit the website: You can also find us on Facebook under Positive Spin LLC.


Wonderful. Lisa, thank you so much for joining us on the Podcast today. Truly inspirational thinking, I love it. And I hope our listeners will take a lot away from it.


Yeah, I hope so, too.


It’s given me a lot of positive energy!


Great! It’s why we call ourselves “Positive Spin”!


Yeah, good point! I love it! All right, wonderful. Thanks, Lisa!


Thanks, Ron!

Carmen Choi

Carmen is the Marketing Coordinator and Preschool Podcast Manager on the HiMama team. She's been working with childcare business owners and consultants for 3 years. She is passionate making connections that empower the ECE Community through knowledge-sharing to support better outcomes for children, their families, and society!

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