Is systems thinking a bit shallow, obvious and academic with no practical guidance?

 

At first it would be easy for a systems thinker to be a bit taken aback by this statement, offended even. But think about it, is it a bit obvious? And is it academic? I would have to say that my answer to this, at this point in time, is yes and no. Shallow? Well, I think that has a different answer, which I think is no. Here are my reasons:

We now live in a country where lies from Government are an everyday occurrence, racism is coming out to play and underdogs are seen as merely that. We are in a global arena where the 1% rule and others suffer from their greed, dominance and desire to control. Systems thinking, with its relationships, reciprocation, self-organisation, emergence and feedback seems almost like an alien concept to some. But it isn’t, is it? It is ‘natural’ and ‘obvious’. It is the essence of life and we can see it all around us in nature. So, why might it seem academic, with no practical guidance?

Well, think of it like this – Does your company have policies of reciprocation, with those you might traditionally see as competitors, which put the greater good of the ‘system’ first and the selfish needs of the organisations second? In most cases, I doubt it. Do you have internal organisational protocols that reward for cross organisation collaboration and sharing? In most cases, I doubt it. Do you monitor your organisation by considering the effectiveness of its systemic sensibilities and its ability to adapt in a changing environment? In most cases, I doubt it.  Mind numbing KPIs that drive perverse behaviours are far more attractive. They can be manipulated to read however you want your organisation to appear. Individuals can celebrate, gain promotion and the company can go to the top of the ratings chart. Do you allow teams the maximum feasible amount of autonomy, give them the authority to act and decide with them how you like decisions to be made and then let them work using their initiative and creativity? In most cases, I doubt it. Most managers love to control their subordinates, telling them what to do, holding them back from opportunity and killing their spirit, often to elevate their own status and standing in the organisation. Do you allocate resources to your departments with the intention of allowing people to make enough money to live on whilst also having a good work/ life balance? Or do you squeeze every drop of work out of them that you can, pay them as little as you can get away with and get rid of them at a drop of a hat when you want to make ‘savings’? Would you go to your Board meeting and tell your partners that you want to ‘create the conditions for change’ with others, rather than compete and be the best? You would be laughed out of the Boardroom in a lot of cases. It is not that there is no practical guidance. It is not that the concepts are inaccessible. It is that the practical guidance is not palatable and not in synch with our competitive, combative ways of doing business.

Our Western world has moulded us in such a way that what has become obvious to many is not collaboration but competition, not sharing but hoarding, not reciprocation but taking everything we can for ourselves. We are educated in ways that makes us consider things as independent subjects. Our politics teaches us that charlatan like behaviour wins. Many know this way is wrong and seek better ways. Through them, there is lots of practical guidance, but it isn’t what everyone wants to hear. This is even evident in the systems thinking community. There are often claims of collaboration and sharing and yet the reality boils down to competition and a need for control. To be seen as first, or more importantly not to be seen as being last.

But, is systems thinking ‘all that’? Is it the thing that will ‘save us’, make our world better and end misery on our planet? Make our organisations thrive and grow? Who knows if it can prevail over the dominant competitive control? Our democracy is for sale and our internal worlds are all individually constructed by algorithms and behaviour shifting manipulation. Can systems thinking prevail over this. Some say it can. Personally, I think all we can do is keep trying.

So, is it obvious? It should be but it has been lost somewhere along the way. Is it academic? Only if you are looking in the wrong places for inspiration and practical examples of implementation. There are lots out there. If you can’t see them, you aren’t looking. Is it shallow? I don’t think so because systems thinking includes humans and the nature of human behaviour is not shallow. We are the creators and destroyers of ourselves. We create the conditions around us that does not let systems thinking thrive. Why do we prefer competition and ‘winning’ over sharing and collaborating? Why do we prefer control over freedom? Why do we prefer to only see what we want to see, rather than the bigger picture? These are quite deep questions and are being debated and considered by systems thinkers and others across the globe.

In essence, I think the question is the wrong question. Maybe we should be asking ‘systems thinking is quite obvious, so why is it still in the world of the academic without it being practically implemented?’ It is only with this kind of question, rather than the ‘it’s great – no it isn’t’ debate that I think we might start to get some additional enlightenment.

Despite my own inner concerns, I continue to pursue what I believe to be good and right. What is true to human nature and what sets us free from the negativity and binding control. It’s a tough road to travel, but I haven’t been put off yet.

In the words of Margaret Wheatley (one of my favourite systems thinkers) ‘Belief is the place from which true change originates’. Maybe you have to believe it, to see it.

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