I don’t get things right, never have done and never will. Getting things right, being a person who simply sails through life without a notion of failure, what sort of person would that make me? I don’t think I would like to be around me if that was my life. What I do ascribe to is a mind that accepts screw-ups as just that, a happening that prompts learning and I generally love them. No one loves upsetting people, or getting it wrong when it leads to someone losing out, but each of those instances are a chance to test yourself, a chance to learn. Of course, learning means that we don’t respond in the same way, that’s not learning that’s stupidity. I also love the fact that, in systems thinking, everything has a connection and synergy that means a spark here can create an ignition of meaningful proportions somewhere else, not in some linear, sequential process but in a systemic way. The ignition itself depends on many different elements, boundaries aside but working together, at different speeds, different feedback routes but responsive to the same purpose.
Systems thinking is more than joined up thinking – that could be causal, linear thinking that leads to well thought through effects. No, system thinking is specific to a mindset that says we must live in the moment, abandon certainty and acknowledge the relative freedom of uncertainty, be open to the now, that’s is what the future depends upon. The Stoic Philosophy resonates with systems thinking, both embrace the ethics of a good and purposeful life. The similarities do not stop there, both refer to a wealth of academic lineage, Stoicism from the likes of Marcus Aurelius to Teddy Roosevelt and more. System thinker’s academic lineage is vital to justify and testify to its effectiveness, from the first and second order cybernetics to the current soft system thinkers, Titans of the business World like Senge and Schon.
Where there is some divergence is possibly in the social nature – Stoicism is a personal philosophy, I don’t see an issue of saying a social corporation might adopt a Stoic pathway, nor that a bunch of Stoics together could not further the understanding of the philosophy, but it is not clear that they could. Whereas system thinking is inherently social, it is a learning system that works because of the very strong social dynamic in play. It is often this dynamic that dictates whether the systemic thinking is occurring or whether we are in fact simply being systematic in our approach. If it is observed by others that you are engaging with a situation systemically then this is justification enough to say you are thinking as a systems practioner.
We may be ever ready and present in the now, but we are hugely aware that this hereditary is a leading indicator to the future. We acknowledge how fortunate we are to be here, as Ison says, we embrace the intellectual lineage which he refers to as “tradition of understanding” (Ison, 2017, P28). How do I rate myself as a system thinker and practioner, on a scale of 1-10 (which is pretty unsystemic) I would say, 6. I doubt I would ever get to a 10 but I aspire to a 9.
As I engage in practice I bring to the table a way of thinking, synergistic, recursive and observant of the cyclical, counterintuitive nature of change of complex situations, I also bring some tools – not all systems tools but tools that act as the translator for the language of systems to an audience on non-system aware people. It is this
aspect of systems that I love, that it is embracing of the path dependent as well as the chaotic, it opens its doors to practitioners from other fields and is influenced by the words of a systemic thinker who may be a journalist, commentator or a member of the current business world. This inclusivity of concepts and different schools of being mean it can deliver greater understanding than many other approaches to complexity could ever do.
Simon Caulkin wrote a scathing indictment of British Management in the Observer (25th Nov 2007), he chastised management for their non-systemic thinking, how they tend to put together “entities that are less than the sum of their parts” (Ison, 2017, P25). He criticised national sports teams along with their governing bodies for not being inquisitive enough, not to be focused on root causes and more interested in short term solutions. This predisposes them to set non-systemic targets which in turn cause “system-blindness” (Ison, 2017, P27). If we continue in this vein we end up treating components individually, not leading to improvement of the all but instability instead.
To counter my own ability to fail, I consider myself as the system of interest, the learner, the system thinker who thinks systemically about his future, who looks at all actions, right or wrong as actions from which to learn for the long haul.
Ison, 2017, Systems Practice: How to Act. 2nd Edition Milton Keynes, Open University Press