The idea of time travel has always fascinated me and, if the recent proliferation of time travel-based TV shows (see: Outlander, Timeless, Making History, Travelers, Legends of Tomorrow) is any indication, I am not alone. Not only does time travel make for great reading and viewing, it can also be an interesting way to think about systems change.

Stay with me for a moment.

Many depictions of time travel in popular culture focus on whether or not it is possible to change history. To do so, they often feature a character who – intentionally or otherwise – travels back in time and attempts to stop some historic event from happening.  One of the most famous scenarios, which persists across multiple mediums, is killing Hitler to prevent the Holocaust and World War II. Leaving aside the many time travel paradoxes (e.g., the Let’s Kill Hitler paradox), the characters are often unsuccessful because of the myriad factors that precipitated the event.

In this case, killing Hitler to avoid the Holocaust and World War II assumes Hitler was the sole cause of the events, which is an oversimplification of the complexities that led to the war. Repercussions from the First World War, the great depression, and many other factors were in place; Hitler was just able to capitalize on them. Avoiding World War II would require addressing the root causes of the political, economic, and social turmoil that existed in post-World War I Germany, as well as the policies of appeasement and failures of the League of Nations.

Changing systems is similar in many ways

The systems in which we operate are complex, just like the problems we are trying to address. For example, while the Safe to Sleep campaign has reduced the incidence rate of SIDS by more than 50%, infant mortality remains a persistent problem. The temptation may be to assume that some people just aren’t aware of the importance of infants sleeping on their backs in beds clear of soft bedding. However, digging deeper reveals that, while many parents know about these recommendations, they don’t have money to adequately heat their house and worry about their children being too cold at night, or they don’t have room or money for a crib. There may also be cultural reasons they are choosing to sleep with their babies. Taking this into consideration moves our focus from solely on educating parents about safe sleep environments and expands it to addressing issues of poverty and housing in the context of culture.

Similarly, we may note that nurse family partnerships are effective programs, helping families with the issues that drive infant mortality. As such, we could encourage more funders to fund them or more providers to offer them. But what about families who can’t access these programs? Are there enough providers qualified to offer effective programs? Are there needs that remain unmet?  If we were to devote all our resources simply to growing the number of these programs, we may miss other opportunities to intervene or, in the worst case, target resources in an ineffective way.

A laser focus on specific endpoints, deliverables, or outcomes – like killing Hitler – can cause us to miss the bigger picture and thus opportunities to affect meaningful, systemic change.