(Last week, I wrote about the power of systems thinking, my history with it, and some of the risks of taking a systems perspective for granted, rather than making a conscious effort to bridge the conceptual divide. I promised to continue with some suggestions.)
It’s most effective, I’ve found, to do this with pictures and stories—and with numbers, but
numbers presented as pictures and stories.
And yet it’s not so mysterious. You already know this. You’ve seen it in a child’s curiosity—including your own—about how things work, and how the world fits together. In the way you think about sports stats or football plays or cooking a holiday dinner or making a dress. The trick is to keep that fascination, and that pattern finding capacity, alive in even the most familiar and mundane of circumstances.
(By the way, If you haven’t read it yet, have a look at Donella Meadows’ classic Places to
Intervene in a System. Whether you have or not, consider joining me and Sally Uren of Forum for the Future for a half-day workshop in applied systems thinking at the Sustainable Brands conference this June.)
Systems thinking. It’s trending. It’s cool. It’s not a panacea. (Hunter Lovins and I would blast a claxon 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’ve been a “systems guy” for as long as I can remember. (A year out of college, I spent the summer with Buckminster Fuller and crew at the World Game Workshop, and was transformed by the planetary scale, every-thing-on-the-table perspective of Bucky’s “comprehensive anticipatory design science,” and by the deep, data-driven understanding that there was no necessary physical or resource barrier to “a world that works for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense, or the disadvantage of anyone.” I was even headed for a doctorate in systems science, but put it off for a year to pioneer rooftop agriculture at Institute for Local Self-Reliance in the early ’70s, and then another year, and then another…and here I am, still having too much fun doing the work to take a “detour” through academia.)
The downside to this innateness is that it’s been easy for me to take a systems perspective for granted, assuming that everyone thinks this way; I was wrong, and I’ve come to understand that there are people who see the world as pattern, and people who see it as things. Both are entirely valid—and useful—views, but we can’t assume we understand each other unless we make a conscious effort to bridge the conceptual divide.
It’s most effective, I’ve found, to… [continued next week]