We’re rational empathetic human beings, right?

We like to think we are but more often than not we fall into traps that prevent us from being rational and our empathy seems to float away. But why is being a rational, empathetic human being important in systems thinking? I didn’t coin the phrase, by the way. I came across it when reading a book by Joe Navarro www.jnforensics.com @navarrotells (Twitter) and I give full credit to him for the inspiration I gained from his writing and the way he shares his insights.

It struck a chord with me because I have done some intense work on systems change over the last few years. During this time, I have been supporting people to engage with systems thinking and systems thinking approaches. However, there was always something else in the room. Something more powerful. Something more relevant. Something I could not reach out and touch physically, but I felt it in terms of the energy vibration in the room. It was the connection of the people, bonding together through mutual trust and respect. It was embracing difference, vulnerability and a sense of self-worth. The more I connected with it, the more powerful it became. The dynamic felt different. It was warm and encompassing. I felt my heart rate slowing, my shoulders dropping and the muscles in my face relaxing.

It was a powerful experience but a one off, surely? Only, it wasn’t. It repeated itself every time. I came to realise that systems thinking approaches were useful, but certainly not everything. The more powerful energy in the room was the strength that was coming from within each and every one of us. It was the energy vibration that bonded us together.

When I read Joe Navarro’s work, I immediately thought, ‘This guy’s a systems thinker!’ I asked him if he had heard of systems thinking. He hadn’t. He said it was just about being a ‘rational, empathetic human’. Never before had such a simple phrase held so much meaning for me. It is easy, when you are embedded in systems thinking, to think that everything that might look or feel similar to the systems thinking you practice is systems thinking. Is it? Is the systems thinking label detrimental? Does it get in the way of the seemingly simple focus that we have been enacting in the work? It opened my eyes and brought a different dimension to the work. I thought back to every time I had worked in an effective team. It was when the people had a deep but relatively quiet inner confidence. They weren’t fighting a battle with their egos. They weren’t trying to be something they weren’t. They weren’t trying to be first or best or ‘the only one’. They were being confident, rational empathetic human beings, who dared to be vulnerable, nurtured each other and kept far removed from the traps of jealousy, criticalness and blame.

Why do we sweep things under the ‘systems thinking’ label? Is it the right thing to do? I don’t think so. What we have been working with is far simpler, yet deeper and somewhat more difficult in modern times. I am excited to see and feel where we go with it next.

Part of the Creating the Conditions for Change approach

Do you want to know what it’s REALLY like to be a systems practitioner?

I have just watched Manhunt on ITV player, for the third time. Yes, the third time. I was watching for something specific with each viewing. If you want to know what it is really like to be a systems practitioner, watch it and keep your eye on the main character, Colin Sutton.

Systems practitioners aren’t consultants who come into your organisation with fancy approaches and ‘sprints’. They aren’t the ones trying to wow you to get themselves more business. Systems practitioners are the ones who, on a daily basis, overcome every barrier that Colin Sutton’s character had to overcome in those two series, particularly the one about Levi Bellfield.

Systems practitioners zoom into every detail and check it out from a human perspective. Not from a ‘computer says’ perspective. They live it and breathe it. They step into the shoes of others and walk it. They see through the eyes of others as well as their own. They go through every aspect of a situation and fully experience it for themselves. They do not cut corners. They painstakingly explore and keep exploring when everyone else has given up. They zoom out and see the bigger picture. They are not deterred by a boundary drawn on a map. They say to themselves, ‘What would a human being do here?’ They experience it. They feel it. Every inch of it.

They have to get past the doubters. They hurdle the blockers and the sceptics. They allow them to have their say but never lose their own focus. Why? Because they work from the heart. From their mature instincts as well as the theories and approaches they know inside and out.

They stand up to game players. They call them out, no matter what the consequences for themselves. They have courage. Boat loads of courage. Why? Because they believe in what they are doing.

True systems thinkers don’t ‘do’ systems thinking. They live it. It is one of their habits.

Watching the series, the first time round, I was fascinated by the stories and there was something else I could not quite put my finger on. Watching second time round I could see it plain as day. I recognised the barriers, the hurdles, the doubters, the game players, the human errors, the reliance on processes that did not work. I also recognised that what worked was a thorough understanding of people and the ability to think in a way that was not clouded by the lack of resources, the poor procedures, the human imposed barriers and boundaries. It was steeped in empathy and common sense. Third time round, I watched again to confirm whether or not I had seen what I thought I had seen.

What I saw was very familiar. Being a systems practitioner is like fighting that fight, when you might be the only one on board at first. The one who dares to step forward and the one who remains determinedly focussed, no matter who tries to knock you off track. No matter who wants to give up. No matter who wants to take an easier road. Nothing deters your determination to do the right thing.

It is not an easy journey to choose and only those who have truly chosen it will fully understand these parallels.