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What is systems thinking? (Part I)

Part one (A Way In)

There are two fish tanks, sitting side by side.  The fish in tank #1 glances over and notices tank #2.  He shouts across to the fish in tank #2, “Hey, how’s the water?”  The fish in tank #2 shouts back, “Wow!  Yea…water….I’ve never really noticed it before!  It’s great, how’s yours?”  Tank #1 fish shouts back, “Much the same!”

Two points about this:

One…much like the fish in tank #2, most folks are mostly unaware of the water in which we swim.  I’d go as far as to say that this “unawareness” extends to the fact that we are even in water.  However, the water is there, even if we are not aware of it.  This “water” is the worldview, or set of assumptions and beliefs, that colours how we live our lives.  We are often unaware of these deep assumptions or how influential they have been in determining how we do business, education, economics and so on.  They have been our reference points when we crafted schools, businesses, financial systems and so on.

And two…..tank #1 fish looks at tank #2 and for all intents and purposes, believes that life is just the same over there.  It looks the same and tank #2 fish speaks the same language and appears to have the same habits and behaviours, so it’d be reasonable to assume it’s just the same.  It has a (mostly unconscious) experience of living in water, never really pays it much attention and presumes that water is water is water.  What tank #1 fish doesn’t know is that life in tank #2 is entirely different from life in tank #2.  That’s because tank #1 is full of fresh water and tank #2 is full of salt water.

Like the fish, we are often blind to both “what is” and “what could be” or “what else is”.

Why bother with systems thinking?

Analytical thinking is hitting the laws of physics and has been found wanting.  The analytical mindset is at the foundation of our educational systems, our political systems, our financial systems and the business of business, all of which are reaching the end of their effectiveness in a world characterised by increasing complexity, volatility, uncertainty and ambiguity.  This is being felt by many, but the awareness of what underlies it is lagging behind, so in an effort to ameliorate chronically low employee engagement, increasingly low voter turnout at elections, poor customer loyalty, or low attainment at school, we deploy little tricks or try to invent new “tools” or “techniques”.  However, all the tools and techniques in the world are useless to really address these issues if they come out of the same old mechanistic, analytical mindset.  A more sophisticated mindset is required first.  A new kind of thinking, not a new trick devised out of old thinking, is required.

A transition is occurring, however.  As analytical thinking has reached its use-by date in many spheres of life, something new is forming.  We are in between the old and the new.  As Vaclav Havel says it beautifully, “Today, many things indicate that we are going through a transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born. It is as if something were crumbling, decaying, and exhausting itself–while something else, still indistinct, were arising from the rubble… ” (Thanks to David Holzmer for bringing that quote to my attention.)

When we are in transition from one way of seeing the world to a new one, we are bereft of words to describe the new thing.  Sometimes, we don’t even find new descriptors, even if our understanding shifts.  We still call it a “sunrise”, even though Copernicus worked out that it’s the Earth, not the sun, that moves.  Nobody would reasonably believe in this day and age that the sun is “rising”, but we are stuck with the word.  In this transition period, we are being pulled away from an analytic way of viewing the world by the inexorable forces of increasing complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty.  We could try, Canute like, to behave as if we can keep them at bay.  An analytical mindset would drive us to eliminate complexity and uncertainty, but just because we don’t want to see they’re there, doesn’t make them go away.  Just because we believe that things aren’t as ambiguous as they are, doesn’t make it so.  Spending more energy to control events doesn’t make the world less volatile, it just makes us more tired.

There is another way to see things

Like the two kinds of water in the fish tanks, systems thinking is not slightly different from analytic thinking; it’s entirely different.  The challenge of communicating these differences lies in some part with the fact that we have a finite vocabulary.  People who are bound by their analytical mindset hear the words and hang a meaning onto them from an analytical perspective and perceive that systems thinking is a new and improved version of what we’ve already got.  We all ascribe a meaning to a word that comes from our own experience, regardless of what another person intends.  Ask a person in Scotland what “supper” is and they’ll say it’s a wee snack you eat before bed at about 9 or 10 in the evening.  Ask an American and they might say it’s the big meal you eat at 5 or 6 in the evening.  Same word, different meanings.  I’m sticking my neck out here, but I believe many folks often cannot grasp the fundamental differences between the two, perhaps saying to themselves, “If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck, just a prettier one.  Duck 2.0.”  No.  Systems thinking is not simply a re-packaging of long-held assumptions.  The fish in tank #1 cannot have any conception at all of what it’s like in tank #2 until he actually inhabits tank #2.  So he believes that “life feels like this” for tank #2 fish and he bases this on the fact that “this is what life feels like”.

If you are a systems thinker, you might sometimes feel you are going a little crazy.  We still live in command-and-control land and our assumptions haven’t caught up to the realities of the world.  If you have begun to act and talk like a systems thinker, you may be treated a little like the court jester.  Actually, I’d say it was closer to the boy who declared the emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes.  Nonetheless, this is what it’s like being a systems thinker.  You see and say things that others think are a little crazy.  Alternatively, people hear your words, but you realise after a while that they are processing them with an analytical mindset and so misunderstand the whole thrust of thinking systemically.  We are all prisoners of our own flat-earthisms, after all.  So you are either side-lined because your ideas seem a little far-fetched (“If there is no hierarchy, how do you control people????”) or what they think they understand is not what you intend.

“I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” Robert McCloskey

I described an experience in a previous article, of watching someone attempt to draw an organisational diagram of their business while also describing it verbally, and it jarred.  I was watching someone writing something on the whiteboard that didn’t match what he was describing, much like watching TV with the sound off while listening to music.  The difficulty they had, it emerged, was how to depict something for which we haven’t yet got any conventions for depicting.  When we haven’t yet got the devices to describe something that is emergent, we will shoehorn it into an outdated model and use words like “productivity” when that’s not what we mean at all.  This makes sense; we haven’t caught up with ourselves.  The ancient Egyptians drew what we would essentially call “stick figures” and it wasn’t until we discovered “perspective” that our visual depictions began to look more like the actual people we saw.

Gary Hamel said it beautifully: we are prisoners of the familiar.  In our efforts to advance to a new way of doing business, it is no good to simply remodel the prison; we need to tear it down.  In effect, what that person was describing was a business that functions as an organic system (an emergent and self-organising process) but he was drawing a hierarchical tree diagram (a rigid structure).  They have radically transformed their business but our abilities to describe this haven’t caught up yet.  It was like drawing a robot while describing a human body.  This mirrors how modern management still views their role and their relationship with the businesses they purport to manage.

Unconsciously acting out of the flat-earthism that is an analytical mechanistic worldview, managers approach the business as if it was a machine, rather than as an organic system.  One major difference between machines and organic systems is that machines do not operate for their own betterment; they operate for the betterment of their masters.  If we continue to view business from this mechanistic perspective, by extension we view the people within them as mere machine parts, there to do the bidding of those in “control”.  Isn’t work meant to be for the betterment of everyone: customers, staff, suppliers, shareholders and the community (not just shareholders)?  Machines do not (yet) have built-in capacity for continuous learning and improvement of its own functioning, but self-0rganising systems have inherent in them, a drive towards continuous improvement.  Managers tend to relate to a business as a thing to control, not a self-organising entity to steward and nurture.  Machines are designed with efficiency in mind, but efficiency does not equate with effectiveness.  Effectiveness is related to having purpose and robots don’t have a higher purpose.  They just do what they’re told.

The fundamental principles of systems thinking seem simple enough.  Everything is connected to everything else.  Most folks would say that makes sense.  The key importance is knowing it and behaving as if it was actually true.

…more to come in Part II.



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