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]

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