Systemic archetypes: Shifting The Burden.

‘’Shifting the burden” is a classic systemic archetype, which tends to show up in many social situations—including athletic training. “Shifting the burden” systems show up whenever there is an apparent, “symptomatic” solution to a problem—a quick-fix—which seems to clear it up. However, that solution has the disadvantage of causing side-effects that hinder the system’s capability to put in play a fundamental solution (which actually would solve the problem at its roots).

This archetype is called “Shifting the Burden” because the burden for solving the problem is “shifted” away from the fundamental solution to the “symptomatic” solution:

Shifting the burden m


2 “negative-feedback loops”

1 “positive-feedback loop”

The symptomatic solution and the fundamental solution each form a negative-feedback “balancing” loop with the problem symptom. Although there is a delay built into the fundamental-solution loop, both loops essentially work in the same manner: they reduce the magnitude of the problem (or the symptom).

When the symptom increases in magnitude, the solutions are put into play: the symptom effectively increases the incidence of a solution, but as the solution reduces the problem, its presence also becomes reduced. The solution and the problem both balance each other’s presence, hence “balancing loop.”

The positive-feedback “reinforcing” loop is made out of basically the entire system, but it is centered around the side effect: Addressing a problem with a symptomatic solution has a side-effect, which reduces the ability of the system to solve the problem. The more this continues, the system will be increasingly less capable of solving the problem.

Although this might seem at first blush like a balancing loop, it is not: this loop isn’t regulating anything. It is merely entrenching—i.e. reinforcing—the system’s inability to solve the problem.

(The “parts” of the system are also components, but they’re not listed in order to emphasize the notion that a system is not built out of parts, but out of interactions).

Why it shows up:

The fundamental solution is never as attractive as the symptomatic solution: the symptomatic solution is much faster at ameliorating the symptoms than the fundamental solution. Even when the fundamental solution has already begun addressing the root cause, the symptoms take a while to clear up. That happens because the fundamental solution doesn’t address the symptoms; it addresses the problem itself.

Due to this necessary, built-in delay in the system, it is usually a much easier task to associate the symptomatic solution with the reduction of the “problem”—although really, we’re talking about the symptoms—than to associate the fundamental solution with the reduction of the problem.

How to solve it:

Two words: vision and patience.

I posted earlier that a big part of systems thinking is to be able, through studied intuition, to understand how a system functions. Vision (call this a combination of study, introspection, and experience) is necessary to identify which component works as the fundamental solution, and patience is necessary to keep working on the fundamental solution despite the fact that the symptoms don’t clear up.

Sometimes, however, the symptoms can threaten to destabilize the system (as is the case with anaphylaxis). Because of that, the symptoms must be addressed, but only while the fundamental problem is also being addressed.

We see a good example in the treatment of anaphylaxis: an allergic reaction causes an inflammatory response throughout the body, usually swelling the trachea until it becomes blocked and no air can pass into the lungs. In this case, the symptom (swelling) is ameliorated immediately by the use of epinephrine. But that alone is not enough: the problem (the allergic response) must also be addressed; the body cannot continue to rely purely on epinephrine. It is because of this that standard procedure for anaphylactic shock is to supply antihistamines, to reduce the allergic response. Once the allergic reaction (problem) has been counteracted by antihistamines (fundamental solution), the symptomatic solution (epinephrine) is no longer needed.

However, antihistamines by themselves won’t cut it either: they usually act in a much longer time-frame than the body can survive without oxygen. This delay is likely to destroy the system—which is why epinephrine is used in the meantime.

(Anaphylaxis, addiction, and economic depression are all examples of “shifting the burden.” This is an archetype because it shows up everywhere).

Athletic training example: 

Static stretching to solve flexibility/mobility problems.

stretch system m

We see the need to alleviate a problem: decreased flexibility. The quickest way to achieve that is to ameliorate the symtom—reduced range of motion—by stretching muscle and tendon. But that doesn’t solve the problem: the source of decreased flexibility is a lack of muscular communication, which boils down to badly-synchronized muscles (poor biomechanics).

The body needs tension in the tendons, so that opposing muscles can use the stretch reflex to communicate: when one muscle stretches, it fires, and the other stretches, fires and so on. That’s how they “talk” to each other—but they have to talk effectively. If they don’t, the entire system freezes because they all begin pulling at the same time. So, the fundamental solution is to increase muscle communication across larger and larger ranges of motion.

But the symptomatic, “quick-fix” solution—stretching—has a side-effect: by lengthening the tendons and training us out of the stretch-reflex it disables the muscles from talking to each other, thereby reducing our potential to solve the underlying problem: poor biomechanics.

For an in-depth discussion, see my introductory post on stretching, “Deconstructing Flexibility.”


The “Shifting the Burden” diagram was adapted from the book The Fifth Discipline, by Peter Senge.

Other sources include this page.

I’ll answer any questions in the comments.

12 thoughts on “Systemic archetypes: Shifting The Burden.”

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    1. Thanks for commenting!

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