The enablers of systems thinking – their amazing power and why some may find them unpalatable

In my experiences of engaging with and applying systems thinking I have come to realise that it is what many call the ‘softer skills’ that have been some of the key enablers for change. When working closely with others and applying systems thinking in a situation, I deeply consider the people within it. My suggestions for points of intervention come from my wider explorations and within that, I don’t forget that it is people we are engaging with and those people crave social inclusion, belonging, nurturing and relationships. They have their own values, beliefs and identity. All of us, yes, all of us, crave to be socially connected in some way or another in my opinion. Exclusion hurts us as badly as physical pain. I’ve blogged about this before, after I read the book, ‘Social’ by Matthew D Lieberman. He explains that ‘when human beings experience threats or damage to their social bonds, the brain responds in much the same way as it responds to physical pain’. He tells us that, ‘we all inherit an attachment system that lasts a lifetime, which means we never get past the pain of social rejection just as we never get past the pain of hunger’.  Interesting isn’t it, that our ‘sensitivity to social rejection is so central to our well-being that our brains treat it like a painful event, whether the instance of social rejection matters or not’.

We are wired to be part of the gang, to have connections and to belong. Now, if that belonging in an organisation is dependent upon keeping your head down, keeping quiet about issues and not doing anything radical, it is my experience that the majority of people are likely to conform to his norm. They need the belonging and they need the work.

As systems practitioners, it is useful if we can help people to challenge conformity, stick their heads above the parapet and make bold or different moves. Take chances. Be risk takers and dare to fail. But what about the fear? The fear of social rejection as a result of standing out? How do we help people deal with this? Do we really know the extent of the ask we are making of people and do we equip them to deal with it in a way that avoids exclusion and the pain of becoming isolated from their peers if they adopt different approaches to their work and even to their own lives?

How do we, and can we, manipulate the working environment to allow the authentic people that work there to showcase their gifts, their personality, their talents and their plethora of ideas and visions. Them, with their powers of connection and excellent networking abilities. Them, with their co-operative partnerships. Them, in their true sense. Not a shadow form of themselves that they adopt so that they can ‘fit in’ and avoid the pain of social inclusion.

Now, when I crawled out of bed early this morning and set up my laptop, I never imagined I would feel so awake in such a short space of time. By ‘awake’ I mean revitalised, energised and inspired. You see, I recently had yet another very stimulating and energising conversation about bringing the humanity back into the workplace. About allowing people to be themselves. About harnessing their creativity and about really living and enjoying their days, not just existing. At the end of it, I was ever more convinced that creativity and truly being allowed to ‘be your authentic self’ are key enablers to effectively applying systems thinking. And so, when people discuss ‘the barriers to systems thinking’ I wonder if they really mean ‘the barriers to people being their true authentic selves’ and it not really being about the systems thinking models, methods, approaches per se.

I know a plethora of people who are system thinkers. I observe them remaining hidden like shiny gems embedded in a dull rock face. They are the diamonds. The jewels that remain hidden with heavy hearts, shrouded in the identity of an imposing ‘grey’ organisation, where ‘fitting is’ is the only thing that avoids the pain of social exclusion or even worse, dismissal.  The pain of social exclusion avoided, but the pain of unfulfillment written all over their faces. Their true values falling from their tree of life like discarded leaves from an autumn tree because they are at odds with the values of the organisation they serve. Joy and fulfilment seen as things to keep hidden, replaced with monotony and regime.

But we can build relationships, alliances, supportive networks and communities. We can nurture, support and motivate. We can co-operate and form partnerships. We can encourage those gems to pop out from the grey wall and dance and shine in all of their beauty. We can encourage and help others to believe in themselves again.

There is a danger here, of course, that sometimes, not always, but certainly sometimes, others don’t want those gems to shine. They don’t want to create the conditions of nurturing, sharing and encouraging individuals to exercise their gifts to the full. They prefer power and control. They like to keep people ‘in their place’ so that their own world doesn’t get rocked in any way. This is what stands in the way of systems thinking, in my experience. Not the language (that’s an easy cop out). Not the approaches (if you don’t understand them, find the people who do, so that they can help you. There are plenty of people out there). It isn’t the heavy texts (although they do exist) or the fact you can’t draw (basic diagrams are powerful and don’t have to be polished works of art). The biggest barriers I have seen are power and control. They seek to stamp out the nurturing enablers that allow people to think freely and openly. To share and discuss. To listen and understand. Systems thinking is powerful when it becomes embodied but what stands in its way are the ever-present issues of power and control. Particularly power cliques who merge together and become toxic hives of manipulation. These are the ones who can find the true enablers of systems thinking unpalatable, because it takes away their power, dilutes their control and encourages people around them to peep their heads out from the hierarchy and show off their talents. They tend to like the idea of systems thinking, but only if they are the only ones to be able to ‘do it’. We all know how destructive that can be. So, if you really want to apply systems thinking, give these enablers some thought. Then, self-reflect and ask yourself if you are the one protecting a power base? Are you the one controlling others? Are you the one preventing those around you from shining brighter? If so, it is never too late to change that and who knows, you might even like the results.

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 do 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.