|Thinking in systems is nothing new, in the context of business, systems thinking as a concept was introduced by Professor Jay W. Forrester at the Sloan School of Management at MIT in 1956 when he created the System Dynamics Group. System Dynamics is an approach to understanding the nonlinear behaviour of complex systems over time using stocks, flows, internal feedback loops, table functions and time delays. There have been renowned members of the group, including Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline. Dating back even further, philosopher Aristotle declared that, “The Whole is Greater than the Sum of its Parts”. He recognised the importance of connectedness and interrelations. An introduction to systems thinking can be found here. The increase in wide-spread attention now, is in part due to the realisation that we need to find approaches that match the complexity of today’s context. As Ross Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety, also known as the First Law of Cybernetics, denotes, the level of complexity in the task (complex context) needs to be matched by a corresponding level of complexity in our response (systems thinking).
Why isn’t it happening?
This bias for linear thinking what does linear thinking mean exactly in this context? is deeply anchored in the current world view – certainly in the western world – so deeply that most of us are not even aware of it. Content and construction of Western education have a major part to play: while we are not explicitly told to think in a linear way, it is just the way things are done.
When using linear approaches to solve complex problems, we are setting ourselves up for failure – or creating a false sense of security. This can be seen by both the examples of recycling – as documented in this FT article – and carbon trading, where we push a problem out of sight rather than address it.
Another significant aspect is that linear contexts can be measured easily, but such predictability and measurability generally evade non-linear contexts.
Whilst we are accustomed to working on progressing projects or implementing plans in an orderly, sequential fashion – one step at the time – complex systems requires us to work on all aspects simultaneously. This requires different approaches and mindsets – and a lot of collaboration. Not only any kind of collaboration, but generally collaboration with people who are different from us, which comes with its own set of challenges. As Einstein said, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”
This also brings us to another challenge: leadership. Whilst a top-down leadership approach works well in linear, hierarchical systems, it becomes dysfunctional in complex ones. Operating successfully in a complex system requires didstributed leadership, which in turn means that players must have a clear understanding of the vision in order to make effective decisions.
The challenge is that those holding leadership positions currently need to let go of control, and empower others. They might even benefit from becoming “servant leaders”, as identified by Robert Greenleaf in the 1970s. Greenleaf lists the 10 most important characteristics of servant leadership, which work well in complex contexts:
- Commitment to the growth of people.
- Building community.
A conversation between Daniel Goleman and Bill George explores the benefits of systems thinking for leaders, here.
Is it the same for everyone?
The degree to which people from different national cultures focus on their immediate families, or feel responsibility for the larger communities brings us to the framework alluded to in the last newsletter: Hofstede’s six cultural dimensions (a brief introduction to each can be found here).
One of the dimensions is individualism versus collectivism. As Hofstede defines it,” The high side of Individualism, can be defined as a preference for a loosely-knit social framework in which individuals are expected to take care of only themselves and their immediate families. Its opposite, Collectivism, represents a preference for a tightly-knit framework in society in which individuals can expect their relatives or members of a particular ingroup to look after them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty. A society’s position on this dimension is reflected in whether people’s self-image is defined in terms of ‘I’ or ‘we’.” Where countries are on that spectrum is shown on the map below.
You can compare different countries here, and below a video clip in which you can listen to Hofstede himself explaining this dimension.