Thursday, March 19, 2015

Digital Master Tuning #61: Can System Thinking become Common Wisdom

System thinking is not just "privileged thinking" by system engineers, but a pearl of wisdom worth pursuing by all leaders and professionals.

"Systems thinking is a holistic approach to analysis that focuses on the way that a system's constituent parts interrelate and how systems work over time and within the context of larger systems." (
Although the concept of Systems Thinking (ST) has been coined and developed for about three decades (perhaps even longer), it seems only very small proportion of people are interested in it, ST is not just the “privileged thinking” by system engineers, architects, scientists or authors. Should it be practiced by every leaders or manager, become a “mainstream thinking”; or, can system thinking become common wisdom, not just “ST wisdom”?

In ST, true wisdom often comes from a willingness to let go of past learning. In the context of Systems Thinking, there is a huge difference in what ST wisdom stands for - and that is possibly what makes it 'uncommon' in the sense of being difficult to 'acquire.' So, non-intuitively ST wisdom is not derived from 'accumulating' - but in observing the changing context of relationships - and in many cases, that means 'letting go of accumulated traditional wisdom.' That perhaps makes the systems thinkers “struggle,” because it means that one has to make a huge effort to get beyond rational linear thinking - what all traditional education systems groom trainees to do - and the 'rational wisdom' that comes as part of that package.

The underlying principles of system wisdom seem not to make so much sense with the rational wisdom: Does it mean system wisdom is complementary to rational wisdom, or rational wisdom is more scientific, but system wisdom is more philosophical? Here is a set of underlying principles of system wisdom:
(1) Today's problems come from yesterday's "solutions."
(2) Every action force has an equal and opposite force. The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back.
(3) Behavior will grow worse before it grows better - or vice versa.
(4) The cure might be worse than the disease.
(5) Cause and effect are not closely related in time and space.
(6) Small changes can produce big results, but the areas of highest leverage are often the least obvious.
(7) Dividing an elephant in half does not produce two small elephants.

The objective of ST is to be wisdom grasped by more leaders and professionals, not enlightenment for a few “gurus” or geeks: Some say, Systems Thinking can only be appreciated by a relatively small finite group of people who have the ability to think conceptually on this level. Fewer really understand it well and even less can practically deploy it successfully. However, as we learn and understand more about our world, the over-complex, interdependent and hyperconnected digital world, which is a lot more complex than we realize, there’s an imperative need for systems thinking and system thinkers, to continue to improve it. But will this uncommon sense remain the domain of only a few, or become the wisdom for many? Rational wisdom is the usual meaning of the term 'wisdom' - it means accumulative wisdom that grows with age - or 'learning from past experience.’ But unlearning is more difficult, and the difficulty grows exponentially with age. So ST wisdom is more difficult to acquire with age. Still, getting older doesn't mean getting mind closed, being learning agile is the digital quality for all ages.

The gap between "raising awareness" and "internalization" is not a single step but requires ongoing communication and effort.
With the advent of modern technology and communication channels, many more people can reach system wisdom with greater ease. The open question is - what are we going to do to change the status quo so that more than a "finite group" understands SD concepts and can use these skills to resolve problems? So to deal with this issue, one can capitalize on raw aptitude by increasing awareness and making it easier for people to apply themselves in a discipline. Dealing with the willingness by individuals to invest effort is a different but related matter, which is the same old human motivation that is at the heart of change management: "why does anyone want to?" Those blessed with more aptitude "see the light " and "understand the value" quicker and this often is motivation in itself. For others, they need to be coaxed and seduced - made aware of the value and more importantly, of the "rewards". The responsibility and contribution of the thought leaders are to demonstrate this to them in very practical and real terms that have meanings to them. To leverage the potential of motivation, it can be done in at least two complementary ways. Individuals are going to have to feel the benefits - ultimately on a very personal level - before they internalize anything. They need to experience the feeling that they directly benefit. They will need more than understanding that it is a "cool idea" and have thoroughly demonstrated, real-life, positive consequences. In change management terms this is aligned with the bottom-up approach.

The “spirit” comes from the top, system thinking needs to be advocated by top influencers in order to be amplified as common wisdom. System thinking is the hybrid thinking process to well integrate analytics & synthesis, strategic thinking and critical thinking, divergent thinking, and convergent thinking, etc. For systems thinking to go to “mainstream,” the highly influential people, such as political leaders, business executives, educators, etc, can be canvassed to promote the idea by reaching them with a "business case" that "proves" the value. Such people may also have to be reached at the individual level first, but will then become strong and effective promoters once they have been convinced to untangle the thorny situations, solve the difficult problems and overcome the digital challenges they face almost on the daily base. Either system thinking is a pearl of common wisdom or the “other kind of wisdom,” it is the wisdom worth pursuing.


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