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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]

Here we are. And there is where we want to be. There’s a third player in this drama, of course: the obstacles—or at least gaps— that stand between here and there. Theories abound about what to do:

  • Meticulously plan how to get there from here, mapping each step of the way and taking every contingency into account.
  • Back-cast by imagining yourself standing in  the successful future and then reverse engineer the trajectory—from there to here, instead of from here to there. (A very useful strategy—thank you Bucky Fuller, Bill Perk and Karl-Henrik-Robert—when “there” seems impossible.)
  • Remove, go around or crush the obstacle. As though the problem was external.

In the realm of physical systems, of course, there are external obstacles—the fallen tree blocking the highway—that do need to be physically removed. But if one thing is clear to me from more than 20 years of helping companies build sustainability into their businesses, it’s that the physical, engineering, designing/making/moving stuff aspect of sustainability is the easy part. The real challenge is people. You and me. It’s getting—or, more accurately, enabling—human beings to show up differently, to think, feel and act differently. And to do it consistently, effectively creatively, generatively.

Again, theories abound:

  • Build on strengths, because that offers the greatest possibility of improvment.
  • Overcome weaknesses, since that will provide the biggest gain for a given effort.
  • Remove the internal obstacles to change, since there are, it seems, these things that hold us back, even when we most want to change.

I’m lately exploring a very different but extraordinarily powerful approach—what Eckhart Tolle calls the power of now, or what executive coaches Bryan Franklin and Jennifer Russell call “accepting the present state.” What happens when you fully accept who you are and how you are now, when you accept that the history and experiences that brought you to where you are now—however painful, disappointing, wish-it-were-otherwise they may be—are both what is so, as well as fully constitutive of who you are now, of the self and capacities you appreciate as well as those you would change? What happens when you take a deep breath, release the familiar story, accept yourself—and your organization, and your colleagues—just as you are, and move freely and powerfully from there?

(A company is not a person, of course, nor is it a collection of people; as Gregory Bateson observed, it’s a collection of parts of people. So this model, like any other, must be applied with care. To be continued…)