How Do We Develop a Systems Perspective?

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As awareness grows that we are living in a world, not just made up by parts, but by complex systems, the desire to develop a systems perspective is growing. I am co-presenting at a conference of social workers this week, helping them understand how poverty is a systemic issue and how approaches to solving it must also be systemic. Fortunately, the session revolves around a powerful approach to addressing poverty developed by Scott Miller called “Circles,” which I have written about in previous posts.

In teaching a systems perspective, it is important to ground the lessons in systemic issues—issues that affect many, if not all, of us and that we deem important. Peter Senge and his colleagues at MIT created quite a splash when they introduced systems thinking and systems dynamics to organizations. What I found interesting is that many people only focused on the systems dynamics approach to drawing causal loops. These tools are a great way for some people to understand systemic relationships and communicate them to others. Yet, systems dynamics is only one way to approach systems thinking. 

As my colleague, Kathia Laszlo, has written about in this blog, systems being is just as important as systems thinking. To understand oneself as a part of a system is a different type of understanding from the cognitive exercises of systems dynamics. To understand how I participate in systems, I need to understand myself as a relational being. As a relational being, I can begin to grasp the reality that I am always in relationship with everything and everyone around me. When I understand that all actions I take have an effect of the systems that I participate in, I am likely to become more responsible for my actions.

In discussing with a leader recently how to help others develop a systems perspective about organizations, I suggested that the first step as gaining an understanding of oneself as relational and then learning to focus one’s view and energy to understanding the relationships among the parts of any system. An example of this would be in solving a customer service problem, looking for the relational issues that effected the situation and caused the problem. This might be related to a customer not having all the information needed or a service representative not having the information to respond to the customer’s need. That might relate to relational problems between departments in an organization or with vendors, suppliers, or other support people and organizations. All too often, rather than inquire and explore the relational breakdowns, we jump to blaming the people who are on the front lines. In this case, it would be easy to blame the service representative, as it is that person’s job to resolve the customer’s concerns. 

Some of the key questions to ask yourself as you are learning to develop your systems perspective are: How am I contributing to the problem? How might I change my way of engaging to effect a better result? What assumptions might I be holding that create blinders in seeing this in a new way? Questions that support a deeper level of inquiry and help us understand the complexity of any systemic issue are most needed. A systems perspective requires us to always embrace inquiry and to question what we think we know—to show up as a learner rather than an expert.

In his seminal book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, Peter Senge introduced the importance of developing personal mastery in challenging and changing our own mental models as well as those that we hold collectively in organizations or in societies. At an individual level, noticing and challenging assumptions is a skill that helps us expand our understanding of systems. At a collective level, challenging and changing assumptions is the core of addressing the many systemic challenges surrounding us with issues, such as poverty, that have no quick or easy solutions and require transformative, systemic approaches.

Read other posts by Nancy Southern

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