What systems thinking means to me

For me, ‘systems thinking’ is a way of being. It involves a way of seeing or interpreting the world through thought and feeling. It is an attitude of open-ness, of inquiry, of looking from many perspectives, inner and outer, of holding, or trying to hold, an awareness of my own beliefs and assumptions, of noticing my reaction to things, of understanding the world as an unfolding process where everything is in relation to everything else. It is an attitude of compassion and love, avoiding judgement, seeking to understand rather than be understood. It is an attitude that is always curious, always ready to learn and amend, realising that to truly know something or somebody, is probably never fully possible, that knowing comes in many forms and is often partial or incomplete, that learning is a subjective process involving a relationship between me and what I am seeking to know, which affects both me and the that which I am trying to understand. It means being prepared to let go of the need to be right, or the fear of uncertainty or the illusion of control.

It contrasts with the mechanistic, reductionist and scientific view of the world, perhaps transcending but still including it, seeing it as incomplete.

From this systemic way of being, everything else flows. I can interpret the world, sometimes as simple (mechanistic and linear), sometimes as complicated (but still essentially predictable, however complicated it may be), sometimes as complex (where the unexpected emerges, often as a result of human behaviour) and sometimes even as chaotic and un-knowable. In each case I can make use of different tools of interpretation, from the hard and analytical (feedback loops, systems maps) to the soft and fluid (rich pictures, action experiment). I can appreciate different perspectives and the influence of power. I can think and feel the world as a continuously responding process, a set of ideas which exist only in a mutually influencing relationship to each other and to me, which unfold, through conversation or perhaps dialogue.

And I can rely on more subjective, more ‘first person’ ways of knowing – inner and outer. Of course I can still learn from experts, but I now do this in the context of my own way of being. I can also rely more confidently on ways of knowing which are not openly accepted as valid in our scientific world – intuition, experience, knowing through enacting or being, because I have a way of testing with myself whether these are valid, useful or reliable.



Developing a complex system

I am part of a monthly discussion group, inspired by Scilla Elworthy, called Rising Women Rising World. It is open to both men and women. We explore how to develop more of the feminine in the world, as a balance to the masculine, especially its shadow side, which has prevailed for so long. (Or you may prefer yin and yang).

At our last meeting one of our group who is a professional dancer, described the process of creating a dance. Her description seemed so relevant to how we think about complex systems, especially how we feel about, recognise, work with, as well as create them, that I reproduce her words here, as close to verbatim as my memory allowed.

Dancers cooperate to produce a dance piece.  
The only way to produce a good dance performance is with cooperation.  But the other important factors are to really know yourself first and what you are capable of, and to be at peace with yourself, so that you can honestly communicate your capability to the other dancers, aware that understating or exaggerating might lead to injury.  
Then, with a blend of negotiation, the direction of the choreographer, flexibility, team work, understanding all the strengths and weaknesses in the participants, and connection between all the dancers, the performance is born.  
For the process to work, the choreographer needs to give tasks that are within reach of the dancers. In finding their individual way to explore the task, each dancer will be making a creative contribution to which any other dancer, aware of the other’s capability, may respond and carry forward.
There is a flux of information, rooted in knowledge and experience, in which each person’s character and personality is important to the task. Years of self-discipline and self-motivation contribute to the beauty of the finished performance.

This description and its elements, also brought to mind David Bohm’s description from On Dialogue:
From time to time, the tribe (a North American Indian tribe) gathered in a circle. They just talked and talked and talked, apparently to no purpose. They made no decisions. There was no leader. And everybody could participate.
There may have been wise men or wise women who were listened to a bit more – the older ones – but everybody could talk.
The meeting went on, until it finally seemed to stop for no reason at all and the group dispersed. Yet after that, everybody seemed to know what to do, because they understood each other so well. Then they could get together in smaller groups and do something or decide things.

And finally, TS Eliot:
…Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

The only certainty is uncertainty

Certainty holds sway. We are under its spell. The desire for certainty seems to pervade everything. But is certainty just a side-effect of rationalism, of our obsession with scientific knowing, where everything is seen as a set of reducible parts.

If we see the world as if it were a machine, understand everything as if it were predictable and mechanical – the brain as a computer, nature as a set of rules, organisations as well-oiled machines – then of course we will see the world as controllable in the same way that machines are. If we pull this lever, we will get that result.

If we are taught that everything can be understood by taking it apart, that everything can be measured, even if we don’t have the instruments to measure it, that if we can’t measure it then it doesn’t exist, then of course we believe the world is entirely knowable and therefore certain.

But what does experience tell us? Surely we all experience the living of life as an unfolding, emerging, ever-changing series of cause and effect events. Life is far from certain, interrupted as it so frequently is with unexpected events which shift us from going there to going somewhere else. As John Lennon so wisely said: “Life is what happens when you were planning to do something else”. Of course, things don’t happen randomly. The future is in many ways scoped by the past. The road outside my house will still be there tomorrow, so my way to work will be the same as it was yesterday. But I still can’t be absolutely certain the road will be there tomorrow, or what state it might be in. The probability that it will be the same is very high, but I can’t be absolutely certain.

Why do we assume certainty is possible? It seems to me we are mostly living under an illusion – the illusion of control, which is rooted in the idea that things are certain. We continue to make elaborate plans, even when we know plans rarely work out as expected. We become impatient because life doesn’t meet our expectations, when there was no real basis for those expectations in the first place. We hold hard to a need to be right.

Doesn’t it make more sense to admit that the world is complex, inter-related and mostly not like a machine, more like an organism, changing, unfolding, where taking things apart to understand them also takes apart their emergent characteristics, their ‘greater than the sum of its parts’ essence? Would you search for someone’s personality by taking their body to pieces?

If we admit this, doesn’t it liberate us, freeing us to welcome what emerges, see the unexpected as opportunity, be experimental with life, let go of the need to be right, aspire to an outcome rather than setting a specific goal, plan only to get to next base and then take stock, being ready to reconsider in the light of the unexpected, admitting the world is complex and probably impossible to fully understand?

And isn’t there a lot more potential for fun in this, in being holistic, systemic, emergent? The only certainty is uncertainty, so better to play with this than pretend it isn’t so.