This blog is on topics of interest to early career professionals who work with people with disabilities. Blog contributors have diverse perspectives on leadership, professional development, and success in changing systems to better serve people with disabilities and their families. For more information on Early Career Professionals, check out the website:

04 June, 2012

Don't Be an Ole' Stick in the Mud! - A Systems Revelation

Tracy Kaplan
How many of us work within a system? What is a “system” anyway? Systems can include: organizations, or the people, processes and structures housed within them, such as state and federally-funded programs for individuals, our places of work, and even local community clubs. These are all examples of systems that many of us interact with on a frequent, if not regular basis. Using this definition, many career professionals certainly work within at least one, if not several. With such a high possibility of professionals working within some sort of system, how many of us have ever experienced that feeling of “fighting the system?” I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve definitely felt this way before.

Prior to beginning my Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities (LEND) project, I had numerous reservations about a particular system in my state. Significant budget cuts and a lack of providers contributed to major changes that led to modifications to the entire system including service provision. I was anxious and unsure about the possible impacts these changes would have on children and families. I was also disappointed in the new ways this system functioned, and I felt like it didn’t match with my personal beliefs and professional training. However, after learning more about my potential role in regards to systems, I soon developed quite a shift in my perspective.

In a nutshell this is what I learned:

Thought #1: Systems are always going to be here. There will be good systems and not-so-good systems.
The system that I was involved in was not going to just up and go away. As with many, they are set in place for the long haul. Knowing that systems are here to stay, it’s important to recognize they will either get better or worse. So, instead of trying to be an obstacle, why not be a part of its positive growth and development? Why not step forward and collaborate? Collaboration is a main tenant LEND training programs emphasize, and it’s truly an underlying key to success at individual and system-wide levels.

Thought #2: Collaboration doesn’t mean giving up. What it does mean is that we must attempt to figure out exactly how to combine our individual efforts, strengths, and abilities with these systems in order to make them the most robust, efficient, and effective. For me, just recognizing that I was working toward the same goal as the system, was quite a novel thought. Although we were in disagreement about what to do and how to do it, we both possessed the same overarching aims. Further, it takes a lot more courage sometimes to find a balance among yourself and others, than it does to sit back, complain, and do nothing. To do nothing at all is actually the worst thing that you can do.

Thought #3: Disagreement doesn’t have to lead to a “fight.”  Even though I didn’t fully agree with the current system that I was working with, that didn’t mean I had to fight against it. Sometimes fighting can take much more energy and resources than attempting to collaborate and “go with the flow.” So, instead of grumbling about what I thought the system should be like, I needed to take a more active role in making this system even better. Essentially, I went from being that “ole’ stick in the mud” to “hopping on the bandwagon.” Shifting from this more independent mindset, to a more positive and collaborative one was eye opening. We can either try to fight against a system, or we can learn to embrace it and help it achieve what it’s ultimately striving for.

Thought #4: Things can always be worse. Someone always has it worse off than you. We should realize how lucky we are to have many of these systems, even the ones that we feel aren’t the most amazing….because chances are, there is another city, state, or country that has a worse system or no system at all. I realized that although my system wasn’t perfect, it was better than nothing at all; and it certainly wasn’t the worst system out there. Sometimes we don’t even have multiple systems of which to take advantage. Instead of criticizing the only one you’ve got, why not try to make it shine? Help make it the best darn system that it can be!

Final Thought: Embrace the “inner change.” As we grow professionally, we are constantly learning and changing every day. Our jobs shape us, not just as professionals, but also as individuals. Systems can spark change among us as well. Learning about the importance of collaboration is one thing, but to put it into motion is another. I was fortunate to put this lesson into practice, and to have this “systems revelation” early on in my career (thanks to LEND), which I know will be a blessing for sure.

So, just in case you haven’t had this “wrinkle” develop on your brain yet, I hope that you will find this lesson learned as valuable as I did.  Everyone can reap the benefits if we only just meet in the middle and stand together.