Wow! Systems Thinking Is Cool

sinking rowboat

Continuing the thread of the last post, this week’s email letter from Gil Friend’s “Natural Logic” business picks up on systems thinking and contains another quote about complexity. He writes:

One big idea: Systems thinking. [Part 1.]
It’s trending. It’s cool. It’s not a panacea. (Hunter Lovins and I would blast a klaxon horn at our Presidio MBA students whenever they used “systems thinking” as a selling point in their pitch presentations—as though it were a self-explanatory magic bullet—instead of demonstrating how they’d actually use systems thinking to identify and deliver value that would otherwise slip through the cracks of a more traditional, reductionist, compartmentalized, mechanistic approach.)

I suppose Part 2 will come next week. System thinking is essential to escape from the reductionist mindset we all have become habituated to without ever thinking about it. I spoke about this in my last post and in many others. Conscious systems thinking, as Friend says, is no panacea for the errors we make in our thinking and acting, but it is a step in the right direction. It’s the “conscious” aspect that I find most important. By bringing the current problem or concern present, the actors involved then have an opportunity (not always taken) to examine their presuppositions and the framing of the situation, and consequently to set out on a path to address the root causes. By avoiding the trap of reductionistic thinking (simplification), systems thinking (and acting) potentially makes the immediate problem go away or close in on the objectives. In the organizational change world, this kind of approach is often called “double-loop learning” (Argyris and Schön).

To emphasize the need to think and act in this way, I often say we are addicted to the use of reductionist thinking. Our cultural learning has given us this way of working without telling us about it. So it is one of the most common and basic of our cultural habits. If it worked well, it would simply (sic) be a habit, and a helpful one as well, but is doesn’t in many everyday situations and in dealing with the big problems we face, like global warming or inequality, and others that we put in the bin of unsustainability. It is an addiction, not just a habit, because it is now producing serious and threatening unintended consequences.

Friend also included another quote that triggers a related discussion to the previous post. “Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.” (Charles Mingus) I’ll counter with another quote, one from Donald Norman, author of Living with Complexity. “Complexity describes a state of the world; complicated describes a state of mind. Mingus doesn’t mistake the two main terms as Yvon Chouinard did. Cutting through complications to find a dominant theme to work on is often, as Mingus writes, a form of creativity, finding “solutions” to messes. But I would guess that in many such instances, the solutions do not persist because, in the process of simplification—a mental operation—the complexity of the situation in view gets overlooked. Since I am into quotes today, I’ll finish with another one. “Chaos often breeds life, when order breeds habit. (Henry Adams)

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