Thoughts on organic systems and systems thinking


No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it. We must learn to see the world anew.  -Albert Einstein

Tough – and rare — the challenge of today is not so much to solve problems and seize opportunities but to reconstruct our thought processes. 21st Century issues are far too complex, global and inter-related to fit last year’s constructs. Though our political, social, academic, economic and faith systems favor yesterday’s mindset, individuals, organizations and institution need to breathe deep and learn to embrace the idea and the tools of systems thinking.

The essential ingredient of systemic thinking is time — time to focus, to deconstruct, to listen, to separate and reinforce the strands then braid those strands into a cohesive whole.

Joe Selvaggio’s op-ed piece in last Sunday’s Strib moved me to spend some time reflecting on the ways in which our compartmentalized structures, reinforced by warp-speed communications, work against holistic thinking. Selvaggio urges us to re-think those who are poor not as a liability but as a critical source of economic growth. Not an easy task but a complex process.

Of course, “time is money” so who has any coin of the realm to squander on systemic thinking? Learning to think systemically is on job description or any organization’s to-do list.

In recent months I have had the to volunteer at Neighbors, Inc. For 40 years Neighbors has addressed the diverse needs of a changing population in northern Dakota County. Neighbors is shaped by a clear sense of mission powered by focused leadership, committed staff, and a network of a thousand volunteers who both represent and serve the community at large.

At Neighbors I am immersed in the reality of how Neighbors staff and volunteers address the crush of human needs for food, clothing, transportation, emergency financial relief, a daily phone call, and, above all, respect and dignity. This convergence of services, services and focused community, leads me to think of how one community is addressing its challenges and opportunities from an holistic perspective..

The struggle to get my head around the concept of systemic thinking led me (as many mental quests do) to google the term. Predictably, I was overwhelmed, intrigued and immediately distracted by the complexity of the models I found. From the perspective of my volunteer post I have reflected on some of the gems that I could understand and remember. Though I have been accused of losing myself in Big Picture thinking I honestly did not know how much serious research there is on the topic of systemic thinking.

One thoughtful yet down-to-earth resource I found midst the corporate models is the Systems Thinking Handbook published by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. In an introduction to the concept of systemic thinking Gertrude Foley writes that many of our thought processes stem from what she calls “the Western Mind” which causes us “to think in linear, dualistic and hierarchical ways”. Because many of us grew up with that construct in mind we learned to insert an intuitive “filter that made it easy to judge immediately what fit or did not fit a particular situation, to distinguish and define what was good, true, and right from what was bad, false and wrong.”

This primer goes on to aver that “behind every plan lies a gaggle of mental models, unconsciously shaping our decisions: about who will be served, what issues/outcomes will be addressed, what actions we will permit ourselves to take, what are desirable, and what standards we will use to determine effectiveness.”

Foley proposes that we need to embrace an “organic, holistic view of the world” that “prefers to look at wholes instead of parts, at processes instead of substances.” She quotes Joanna Macy who points out in Coming Back to Life that the organic model sees reality as “dynamically organized and intricately balanced ‘systems’ interdependent in every movement, every function, every exchange of energy and information.”

In the same handbook Nancy Schreck describes the three requirements for systemic thinking, i.e. that we 1) make time to reflect on the “big questions,’” 2) engage others and ourselves in remembering and telling our “deep stories,” and 3) see things as they really are and mobilize appropriate responses, which create hope.

That’s all heavy stuff, of course. I love it because it defines and affirms the sort of thinking that often gets me in trouble for being too abstract and fuzzy.

From my corner cubical at Neighbors I can observe this organic reality being lived in real time, a stable model that results from intentional systemic thinking. What I am learning is that there are ways to change the mental filters, to move from old patterns to organic thought processes.

Still, I am aware of Foley’s warning that “getting a general idea about systems or systems thinking is not difficult. To actually do systems thinking, however, requires study and practice. Persons who are serious about effecting change in a relationship, a community, or a society need to learn both the theory and skills of systems thinking.”

Likewise, I note the cautionary note sounded by Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook. “More often than not, as a systems effort makes underlying structures clearer, members of the group may have moments of despair. Jan Forrester has called systems dynamics the “new dismal science.” Because it points out the vulnerabilities, limited understandings, and fallibilities of the past, and the assurance that today’s thinking will be the source of tomorrow’s problems.”

Overwhelmed by the literature and graphics produced by systems thinkers, I was ready to move on to something a little less challenging when that persistent LCWR handbook called my name. The excerpts from systems thinkers quoted in the Handbook got me over the mental barrier to learning more. It’s a quick take on the principles that undergird organic thinking.

The authors of the handbook also list in lay terms the “laws of systems thinking” as described. Today’s problems come from yesterday’s “solutions.”

  • The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back.
  • Behavior grows better before it grows worse.
  • The easy way out usually heads back in.
  • The cure can be worse than the disease.
  • Foster is slower.
  • Cause and effect are not closely related in time and space.
  • Small changes can produce big results – but the areas of highest leverage are often the least obvious.
  • Dividing an elephant in half does not product two small elephants.
  • There is no blame.

They then summarize the thoughts of the leaders in the field of systems thinking:

The system is capable of solving its own problems. The solutions the system needs are usually already present in it. If a system is suffering, this indicates that it lacks sufficient access to itself.

My tentative dip into the rigors and practice of systemic thinking is shallow at best. The fact is, this one paper from the LCWR offered a primer with basic tips on how to proceed to a more disciplined organic way of thinking about life, the universe and everything, including organizations and projects with which I am involved. Though I explored countless other paths to understanding big picture thinking, I kept returning to the LCWR handbook for grounding. In simple language it affirms what seems on the one hand obvious, on the other hand a complex method to be studied and practiced with intention.

As a volunteer at Neighbors I enjoy a unique opportunity to hone the skills and practice of systemic thinking. From the sidelines I can observe and take time to reflect with the hope that I will instinctively think organically about systems and issues. Writing this skimpy piece puts me on record and gives me essential experience in applying a semblance of discipline to a way of thinking that follows where my instincts want to lead.