Shifting the Burden Archetype

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An underlying problem generates symptoms that demand attention. But the underlying problem is difficult for people to address, either because it is obscure or costly to confront. So people "shift the burden" of their problem to other solutions—well-intentioned, easy fixes which seem extremely efficient. Unfortunately, the easier "solutions" only ameliorate the symptoms; they leave the underlying problem unaltered. The underlying problem grows worse, unnoticed because the symptoms apparently clear up, and the system loses whatever abilities it had to solve the underlying problem.

Excerpt From: Peter M Senge. “The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization: First Edition.”[1] .

Shifting the Burden Archetype
Causal Loop Diagram

Shifting the Burden is one of the 16 System Archetypes. These structures are one of the most important remarks of System Dynamics and Systems Thinking. Archetypes are used to detect patterns of behaviour of social systems (businesses, communities, states, economies, etc.) - it can be used as a diagnostic tool of current state or as a tool to look at the future development of the system. As a diagnostic tool it helps managers to obtain perspective of the internal structure of the system, its functioning and help them to get a better idea of the current system state. As a prospective tool it is mainly used for planning. Managers can formulate their future goals and with the knowledge of the functioning of their organization, they can better determine the procedure by which this goal can be reached.

Shifting the Burden Quick Fix Response

Shifting the Burden archetype captures the situation when dealing with a problem is solved only by temporarily solution. This short-term solution also affects the fundamental solution. Attention is given only to short-term solution or a solution which solves only side effects. Shifting the Burden is pervasive on many levels of our society. It is also a key ingredient in ecological matters. We have often avoided confronting the underlying issues because we use quick short-term fixes.

This Systems Archetype was formally identified in Appendix 2 of The Fifth Discipline[1] by Peter Senge (1990).

If reinforcing and balancing feedback and delays are like the nouns and verbs of systems thinking, then the systems archetypes are analogous to basic sentences or simple stories that get retold again and again. Just as in literature there are common themes and recurring plot lines that get recast with different characters and settings, a relatively small number of these archetypes are common to a very large variety of management situations.

The systems archetypes reveal an elegant simplicity underlying the complexity of management issues. As we learn to recognize more and more of these archetypes, it becomes possible to see more and more places where there is leverage in facing difficult challenges, and to explain these opportunities to others.

Excerpt From: Peter M Senge. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization: First Edition.[1]

The Fifth Discipline

In 1990 Peter Senge's book The Fifth Discipline[1]: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization started selling and it began its steady march into the hearts and minds of leaders and students of organizational behavior around the world. The Fifth Discipline was the book that made Peter Senge famous and that made people talk about the concept of the Learning Organizations. The Journal of Business Strategy, named Senge a ‘Strategist of the Century’; one of 24 men and women who have had the greatest impact on the way we conduct business today. Additionally, in 1997, Harvard Business Review identified the book as one of the most influential management books of the past 75 years. The Fifth Discipline is the result of many years research and intervention of hundreds of people. The main inspiration was the analysis of people’s inability to manage complex systems and the focus on decentralizing the role of leadership in organizations so as to enhance the capacity of all people to work efficiently towards common goals [2].

Systems Thinking

Systems thinking is a way of seeing the connections, links, or relationships between things. Instead of seeing parts and pieces of how things happen, it allows the interdependent whole to be appreciated. It tries to comprehend system in holistic nature. It is a process for understanding the interrelationships among key components of a system, such as: hierarchical relations, process flow, attitudes and perceptions, product quality, sales, production, just in time delivery, cash flow, customer service, delivery, research and development, how decisions are made, and hundreds of other factors. This discipline draws on perceptions and experiences of people from different levels and functions in the organization, providing diverse perspectives for improving the quality of systems thinking. Using feedback loops, reinforcing loops, and balancing mechanisms helps to map out systems and the outcomes desired.

Archetype description

Shifting the burden structures are common in our personal as well as organizational lives. They come into play when there are obvious "symptoms of problems" that cry out for attention, and quick and ready "fixes" that can make these symptoms go away, at least for a while.

Archetype Causal Loop Diagram

Shifting the Burden.png

This archetype consists of two balancing processes, that are trying to adjust or correct the same problem. The top half of diagram represents quick fix, the bottom part represents more fundamental response to the problem - it has a delay, so its effect takes longer to be evident. Often (but not always), in shifting the burden structures, there is also an additional reinforcing (amplifying) process created by "side effects" of the symptomatic solution. These side effects makes it harder to invoke fundamental solution - the longer we use symptomatic response, the harder it is to make system work fine. For example - if we use drugs to overcome troubles in life, we get into more trouble in future. If we fix problem of dirty dishes by stacking it onto each other, we end up with stockpile we don't want to touch - in global it is easier to clean up dishes after eating, but it is not so comfortable for us, so we just add it to stockpile and stay in our comfort zone.

Stacking dishes onto each other and avoiding solution

Shifting the Burden examples

A shifting the burden structure is hidden behind many "solutions" which seem to work effectively, but nonetheless leave you with an uneasy feeling that they haven't quite taken care of the problem. Managers may believe in delegating work to subordinates but still rely too much on their own ability to step in and "handle things" at the first sign of difficulty, so that the subordinate never gets the necessary experience to do the job and manager suffering from burn-out. Businesses losing market share to foreign competitors may seek tariff protection and find themselves unable to operate without it. A Third World nation, unable to face difficult choices in limiting government expenditures in line with its tax revenues, finds itself generating deficits that are "financed" through printing money and inflation. Over time, inflation becomes a way of life, more and more government assistance is needed, and chronic deficits become accepted as inevitable. Shifting the burden structures also include food relief programs that "save" farmers from having to grow crops, and pesticides that temporarily remove vermin, but also eliminate natural controls, making it easier for the pest to surge back in the future.

Oil Dependence

Shifting the Burden - oil.png

When gasoline prices go up, pressure rises for more fuel-efficient cars, then gasoline prices fall and the pressure for low-mileage vehicles vanishes, consumers stop buying those cars, the oil producers celebrate, we remain addicted to oil and prices gradually go up again, petro-dictators get rich, we lose.

Human Resources[1]

Busy managers are often tempted to bring in human resource specialists to sort out personnel problems. The HR expert may solve the problem, but the manager's ability to solve other related problems has not improved. Eventually, other personnel issues will arise and the manager will be just as dependent on the HR expert as before. The very fact that the outside expert was used successfully before makes it even easier to turn to the expert again. "We had a new batch of difficulties, so we brought in the personnel specialists again. They are getting to know our people and our situation well, so they are very efficient." Over time, HR experts become increasingly in demand, staff costs soar, and managers' development (and respect) declines.


If you have a headache and you take an aspirin and the headache goes away, then you might just be happy with that and not worry about why you had a headache in the first place. Next time you get a headache, you just take another, because it worked in the first place. Pretty soon you will get used to it and always keep aspirin around and never look for a more fundamental solution to headaches. Taking aspirin will make it less and less likely that you actually adjust your health so that your body works right in the first place. To actually reverse the process and find and apply the fundamental solutions would probably mean that you would suffer through some headaches while the fundamental solutions are worked out and start taking effect. That might mean a change in lifestyle, as in eating or sleeping habits.

Software development[3]

Shifting the Burden example in software development is when management tries to apply a brute force solution, like increasing the manpower of a project, or forcing developers to work an excessive amount of overtime, to compensate for low productivity, or poor planning. Often used solution is to add more people to the project. However new people must get used to the working environment, they have to install some software, they have go through some company standards, etc. Few days they won't be much productive and they will also need much more help from other developers. Therefore, the net productivity of the project is reduced. If the system under development is complex, or just messy, there may be several months, before the new developer is up to speed. Until then, the project will not get the productivity increase the management hoped for.

If too many developers have been added at once, there may be major coordination problems. What should all the new people do? The system under development may not have an infrastructure that allows very many people to work on it efficiently. Management usually finds ways to keep everyone busy anyway, in the interest of "cost efficiency". The result is predictable: the software becomes incredibly messy. Consequently, changes become very hard to implement, and the defect count skyrockets. Even if there was an initial improvement in productivity, it is not sustainable.

More examples

Classic examples of shifting the burden include[4]:

  • Making up lost time for homework by not sleeping (and then controlling lack of sleep with stimulants)
  • Borrowing money to cover uncontrolled spending
  • Feeling better through the use of drugs (dependency is the unintended side-effect)
  • Taking pain relievers to address chronic pain rather than visiting your doctor to try to address the underlying problem
  • Improving current sales by focusing on selling more product to existing customers rather than expanding the customer base
  • Improving current sales by cannibalizing future sales through deep discounts
  • Firefighting to solve business problems, e.g., slapping a low-quality – and untested – fix onto a product and shipping it out the door to placate a customer
  • Repeatedly fixing new problems yourself rather than properly training your staff to fix the problems – this is a special form known as “shifting the burden to the intervener” where you are the intervener who is *Inadvertently eroding the capabilities and confidence of your staff (the unintended side-effect)
  • Outsourcing core business competencies rather than building internal capacity (also shifting the burden to the intervener, in this case, to the outsource provider)
  • Implementing government programs that increase the recipient’s dependency on the government, e.g., welfare programs that do not attempt to simultaneously address low unemployment or low wages (also shifting the burden to the intervener, in this case, to the government)

Achieving leverage

Dealing with Shifting the Burden archetype requires strengthening fundamental response and weakening symptomatic response. Strengthening fundamental response requires long-term plan or vision. This vision should be shared (if there is more than one manager in the company). Weakening symptomatic response requires willingness to telling the truth about palliatives etc. For example: Politicians must admit that the resistance they face to raising taxes comes from the perception that the government is corrupt. Until they deal credibly with perceived corruption, they will neither be able to raise taxes nor reduce spending.[1]. Very good illustration of the principles of leverage can be seen in alcoholism and drug treatment programs - they must face their addiction and they are also offered training and support groups, which help them face their problems in the future.

Symptomatic solutions are often needed - treating a person suffering from a disease created by smoking or drinking. They should be always combined with rehabilitating the capacity for fundamental solution.

Management principle

Beware the symptomatic solution. Solutions that address only the symptoms of a problem, not fundamental causes, tend to have short-term benefits at best. In the long term, the problem resurfaces and there is increased pressure for symptomatic response. Meanwhile, the capability for fundamental solutions can atrophy

Excerpt From: Peter M Senge. he Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization: First Edition [1]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 Senge, Peter M. (1990), The Fifth Discipline, Doubleday/Currency, ISBN 0-385-26094-6
  2. Braun, William. The System Archetypes [online]. 27. 2. 2002 [seen 21. 1. 2016]. Available at
  3. Martensson, Henrik: Systems Archetype: Shifting the Burden [online] 13 Aug. 2006. [seen Web. 22 Jan. 2016] Available at:
  4. Chichacly, Karim: Shifting the Burden. [online], 22 Dec. 2010. [seen 22 Jan. 2016]. Available at: