Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Systems Thinking Dynamics 101

Readers who have taken the steps to read this blog regularly are to be congratulated, you are on your way to being transformed, by being exposed to newer ideas and concepts, expanding your own mind, developing newer and broader perspectives and learning new ways to think and grow.


You've read me write a lot about how systems thinking is important to you and organization's enhanced ability to adapt to current and future environments. In this post I'd like to give you a better idea how it works.

Systems thinking is grounded in the study of systems. Just to state the obvious. Less obvious is there are different kinds of systems and systems thinking. There are mechanical systems, for example. Their are social systems, like the organization you either work for, or manage, or are in charge of, and their are living systems.

My particular brand of systems thinking is grounded in my study of living systems with applications to social systems. Like you. Your community. Your work. Your organization.
(While I am indebted to many books and writings of systems thinkers, I am especially indebted to Peter Senge and his book, The Fifth Discipline.) 
Systems thinking is a broader, more holistic way of looking at and thinking of how all the various components and sub-systems of  a system interact and produce. (understandably, we will put aside for now what it is systems can produce!)

Our tribal ancestors would have assuredly used systems thinking in their adaptive approaches to the environment in which they lived. Which is to say, it is a natural way within us to think. We know this because there are still many peoples who live now as our ancestors did tens of thousands of years ago.

The difference now between our tribal ways of life and our modern  economic way of life is the level of complexity.
Modern systems thinking has to deal with a degree of complexity unimaginable to our tribal brethren.Modern economic life involves mechanical systems, technological systems, social systems, economic systems, belief systems, living systems, trading systems and ecological systems. All have interactions and inter dependencies with one another.

For now, I want to focus more on systems thinking at the more basic level where it means something to you or your organization.

Anybody can incorporate systems thinking into their perspectives and ways of thinking of themselves and the world they live in.

By way of example, I will share with you how I developed my own systems thinking process.
Firstly, I was highly motivated to do so. Whether my mind had a natural propensity to think in terms of interactive systems is hard to say (a chicken or egg problem!), but I can say some time around 15 years ago I started to develop systems thinking as a way to look at how the world worked.
To grow my knowledge, the more I learned the more I shared and in turn the more I learned. That dynamic process enabled me to develop a pretty robust systems thinking point of view.
It is a process that can be applied to anything.

Now here I can introduce two important concepts of systems thinking.
--All systems are reliant on the acquisition and transmission of information.
--All systems develop dynamic feedback loops as course corrective mechanisms.

Simple, right?

For me to learn about systems thinking, I tried to continually acquire and transmit information on systems that I read about, observed, inter acted with, etc.
I learned to develop both positive and negative feedback loops as corrective mechanisms for my acquired information. This process leads to the classic pattern of--data-information-knowledge-wisdom.
(Bonus note!! Our brains/minds take in data all the time, of which approximately only 95% we are 'aware' of. Your conscious is the minds way of turning data into functional information and knowledge for you to operate in your living environment)

The fundamental key here is developing both positive and negative feedback loops and finding a harmonic balance between the two. If there is only ever ONE thing you learn about systems thinking, this is it.
Negative and positive feedback loops (negative="oops, that's wrong! positive="yay, that's right!") are how all living systems adjust to the data and information they take in to produce the knowledge it needs to adapt and survive in its environment.
Wisdom is your way of adding additional value to the knowledge you have systematically acquired. Whether I am adding wisdom here is up to you to decide! (Hint. Systems thinking is the best way to assess whether or not I have added value!)

While there are a lot of things that derail our natural systems thinking minds (Bonus note!! Civilization itself has been part of the process of systematically derailing your own systems thinking mind!) here are a few:
--a mind boggling (literally!!) degree of complexity in modern life.
--ego short circuits the positive and negative feedback loops ("I am the pinnacle of expertise!"Or conversely; "I am too stupid to get this!)
--hoarding and developing silos and walls around your knowledge for personal power or gain ("Only I have access, and you will pay dearly to access it!").

All three are detrimental to your personal development and the ability of organizations to adapt and grow.
Winning people and winning organizations will learn to over come all three.

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