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Systems Thinking: An Essential Skill for Living in the 21st Century

By: Nancy Southern | 17 Jul | 2 comments


I am attending the annual conference of the International Society of Systems Sciences (or ISSS) along with a number of Saybrook faculty members, students, alumni, and colleagues from around the world. What each person here has in common is an understanding of the complexity that makes up the world we live in today and the urgency to transform the organizational systems that were designed to meet the need of the industrial age. There is widespread recognition that many of our systems, whether they be government, education, economic, healthcare or business are failing and not serving us well. We are on a path where the breakdowns are very clear, but our ability to redesign these systems seems out of reach.

ISSS is a professional society devoted to interdisciplinary inquiry into the nature of complex systems. While extremely interesting and, for the most part, highly intellectual, the challenge of this work rests in how to make it scalable, enabling the majority of people to become systems thinkers and increasing the level of understanding of the world in which we live. Science and engineering are avenues to develop systems thinking abilities; however, we need to find ways to embed systems thinking in all subjects. Embedding systems thinking into all learning shifts the focus from the parts to the relationships and creates greater relevancy.

Systems thinking enables us to grasp the nature of being human and creates an opportunity for us as humans to co-evolve with the world. We come to understand that we live within a layered context—an incredible diversity of life forms that inform and shape us and the world around us. As humans, we are not in control and must be adaptive to the changing environment in which we live. As conscious beings with language ability, we have great power to shape the world we live in and great responsibility for the actions we take. Becoming aware of the damage we have done to the planet, our actions need to be in service of all life, not just human life.

The ISSS conference launched with an inspiring talk by Humberto Maturana and Ximena Davila. They shared their perspective on the nature of being human and how we can make better choices as to the future we want to live as well as our responsibility as stewards of the natural environment. Important to their perspective of being is the need to inquire and reflect on what we do and why, as they noted the nature of being arises through the doing. Language and our ability to share stories and make sense of them gives us the ability to create new narratives, new actions, and new ways of being together in the world.

As we work together to create transformative change, Maturana noted that a critical part of our conversation and decision-making must clarify what we want to conserve. Considering what we want to conserve can bring us to agreement on what is most important and needed to sustain us. Honoring the disagreement that exists among many perspectives is important in this conversation. The conversation about what we want to conserve will increase our awareness of the waste that is present within our lives and systems. Reducing waste is act of conservation and becoming more conscious of what we want to conserve should naturally reduce waste.

We live in a time of increasing complexity. Those who study the systems sciences would agree that systems thinking is a way to understand the nature of the complexity and take action individually and collectively to address the complex systemic problems that surround us. Forming and joining learning communities that engage systems thinking is an important first step. As we establish professional , academic, organizational learning communities, we must be certain that the barriers to entry to those communities are open to draw in diversity of thought and experience and to bring forth playful, creative, and innovative action. Learning communities need to be held in care, nurtured as living systems, and fed with information and other resources so that energy can flow freely. With these conditions they can be containers for ethical, socially-conscious work that can address the complex problems and great opportunities that face us in the 21st century.

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Comments and Discussions

I didn’t make it to the ISSS

I didn’t make it to the ISSS conference, but it is on my bucket list to do so. Systems thinking influences much of what I do, too, especially when I am called upon to get up to speed quickly on some topic or job, I almost always apply it personally and simplistically: desired outcomes; environment; boundary; inputs; processes; feedbacks; structures; human interfaces; populations; trends; etc. The kind of stuff I can do on the back of a napkin that lets me quickly grasp a situation and its requirements.

I do not open a system dialog with other parties, ever. Nor do I throw out system theory terminology around people who are not familiar with it as it would be a disrespectful "talking down" to them.

I agree with what Nancy writes above and I also have to say that, at some point, we are all going to have to ask the Naked Emperor question about systems thinking: "After 60+ years does anyone give a darn except a small cadre' of academics and intellectuals?".

I wouldn't ask the City manager here where I work if she wanted me to facilitate a meta-system approach for pro-active co-adaptation to solve the burgeoning pothole problem. And she is very smart Harvard MPA, too. "Yeah, Jerry, order two of 'em. You can explain it next week to City Council but keep it short."

ISSS, at least the journal, seems to have little room for what I would call practitioners, i.e., people like me who can and do sometimes apply systems theory to real world problems but aren't going to take the time to write it up in a manner that passes peer review muster (75 reference citations). Overall, many ISSS journal articles consist of academics referencing theories and work of other academics and only infrequently doing real field research on a problem with, e.g., surveys and observations. Current systems research seems to have a high fluff-to-data ratio, IMHO, perhaps one of the reasons it has so little business and public credibility.

As for complexity and emergence, well I was very involved early on in the complexity theory bubble in mid-1990s in Santa Fe and met and studied with some of the luminaries there at the Santa Fe Institute. Everyone thought it was the Next Big Thing including me. 20 years later, who ever heard of complexity theory except the above? It's hard to build a product out of what is essentially a worldview (except for a few analytic applications). And it is even harder to get anyone except academics and intellectuals to talk about a worldview. When I bring it up to my students (I use a great template developed by John Adams et al) their eyes glaze over. "Mr. Kurtyka, what's the assignment for next week?"

We forget one of the most basic system laws: Requisite Variety. You can't throw a worldview at someone who has no idea on earth what a worldview is. That describes most folks.

I found the ISSS Conference

I found the ISSS Conference to be an intriguing experience. Very few of the sessions resembled how we engage people in discussions in my health care world in BC. I must confess I was amused at how outdated was the common mode of attempting impart knowledge and foster learning. There was however much learning to be had, and it was truly a privilege to be in the company of the likes of Dr. Ian Mitroff and others. I think events such as these are focused on those folks who are tenured and the need to meet or fulfill some academic criteria. If the ISSS is to sustain for the long haul it needs to make relevant in its topics and mode of delivery with a world that seems to have moved at a quicker pace, and menage a younger cadre of like-minded souls from the diversity of multi disciplines from which it arose.

I am very appreciative of the opportunity to partake in systems transformation with the work we are doing in the BC health care for leadership development and building a talent management framework for the province; it is systems thinking in practice.

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