A Systems Practitioner’s Dilemma

SmallLogoI don’t usually air my bigger, more challenging, dilemmas as a systems practitioner out loud, not in public anyway. But, today is different. Today, I am facing the world with a dilemma I never thought I would have. Even in my wildest imagination I did not expect it. Today, I am contemplating the barriers to entering into and being accepted by the world of systems practitioners, but not for just anyone…..for systems practitioners!

My dilemma is twofold really. Firstly there is the question, ‘Why is there such a barrier to entering fully into the systems practitioner community’ and secondly, ‘What do I class as the ‘systems practitioner community?’ and based on my answer the question is, ‘Is there really a barrier or is it just a matter of perception? And who is the community anyway?’

I entered the world of systems thinking back in 2007 when studying the Open University undergraduate systems courses. I took to it straight away and knew it was my vocation. It seemed to fit perfectly with how I wanted to see and challenge the world around me, so off on my systems journey I went. I have to say it has been a bit like a voyage on a treacherous sea at times and that wasn’t during my time going through the formal education part of it either. It has been since becoming a ‘systems practitioner’ and trying to enter into and engage with that pre-existing community.

So, what is my issue? My issue is that it is common place to hear systems practitioners verbalising the ‘no one understand us; no-one wants to know about systems thinking’ plea to the world, but I question if this is really true? My experience has been that when I use the concepts and methods etc of systems thinking in the workplace, people tend to respond on a scale from generally receptive to overawed. That is, of course, if I don’t use the words ‘systems thinking’ but just get on with it, instead of trying to preach about it. I have trained many a team in the basic concepts and methods, without telling them that it is system thinking. The results have been overwhelming positive at times and I know many of those I have trained use the concepts and methods on a regular basis. I often find people huddled in corners doing causal loop diagrams or teams discussing multiple perspectives as they deal with their everyday workplace issues. And then I come across those in the workplace who just seem to naturally think in a systems thinking way and when I compare their work to, say, soft systems methodology, they look like remarkably similar ways of understanding a situation and yet there is no mention of ‘systems thinking.’ So, for me, I wonder if there is such a big barrier to systems thinking? At this point in time I think systems thinking if far more mainstream than we give it credit for. What isn’t mainstream is what I call ‘systems thinking preaching.’ We don’t have to be evangelical about systems thinking we just need to get on and do it. Then, when it works, we infect others with the ‘bug’, pass on the knowledge and its use spreads like a virus. There are over 1,400 people registered on the Open University systems thinking alumni Linkedin group. You can’t tell me there aren’t systems thinkers out there!

So, with all that in mind, why I am perceiving that there is a barrier to fully engaging with the  systems practitioner community? The answer is a difficult one because to answer it I have to consider who/ what the systems practitioner community is. You see, there is a community out there of people who have been systems practitioners for a lot of years. They are hugely experienced and knowledgeable and a massive asset for newer systems practitioners to tap into and learn from. Most are amazingly helpful, once you can get to them. But, are their boundaries too tightly guarded? And is that created by their own perception that they are an exclusive community of practice? Or perhaps an intentional desire to remain guarded? I don’t know; I don’t have the answer. What I do know, though, is that I have tried – and am still trying – to bridge the gap between the experienced and the newer practitioners; to bring the communities closer together. To share learning and I mean share, not be preached to. Both sides have something to learn in this exchange. However, my personal experience is that of a huge ocean with rolling waves to be crossed and I’m bobbing around in my little boat, being battered by the giant sea swell. Those with little experience want to learn without being strongly criticised. They need to make up their own minds about what works and what doesn’t. The more experienced want strong challenge and rigor. After all, they are the ones pushing beyond the limits to expand knowledge and understanding. Neither is wrong, they just have different needs. I, therefore, am contemplating if the two worlds can effectively come together harmoniously to help one another? It is possible I think, but dependent upon one thing……the desire to come together.

Yes, I did really say that…the desire to come together. Does it really exist? I don’t have the answer but I do know that if one community doesn’t let the other in then they will continue on their separate journeys and to me that is a great waste and a massively missed opportunity.

In answer to my own questions I seem to be coming to the conclusion that the barriers may just be perceived. I think this because of what I, personally, have in the past perceived the systems practitioner community to be. I used to consider it quite an exclusive club. But, nowadays, I don’t consider it an exclusive club at all. I consider it to be all of the systems practitioners out there. The consultants, the academics, the internal agents……anyone and everyone who is applying systems thinking.

I used to wonder whether more experienced systems practitioners would let me go on their journey with them. Nowadays, I wonder if they want to come on my journey with me? I may have had my boundary around the ‘systems practitioner community’ too tightly drawn in the past. What if I move the boundary? Now, this will make some of you twitch and convulse a little, I’m sure. That is because we haven’t yet mastered how to co-ordinate the two communities so that they can work harmoniously together, so moving the boundary to include the two is not going to make things better. It might well just make them worse. But what if we don’t move the boundary? Do we then just remain as is; separate and divided? Do we just need to make our current boundaries a little more porous so we can facilitate more and better exchanges between the two worlds? Maybe this is the answer. Maybe it just needs a little more effort from both sides and like I said………a DESIRE to move forward together.

Is the desire there? Now that remains the ultimate question…………………………..