Over the past number of months I have been following (and in some cases contributing) to discussions on a number of LinkedIn groups that focus on systems thinking. Many of these groups have hundreds or even thousands of members.
Personally, after many years of working with systems thinking I no longer find the concept of ‘system’ to be of value and I find the typical applications and approaches to systems thinking in organizations quite problematic. A number of posts on this blog illustrate what I see as those problems as well as alternative ways of understanding and working with people and organizations.
The purpose of joining these LinkedIn groups was to see what was currently being discussed in this area since it is seen as such a critical skill and approach to organizational development work. Indeed it is assumed that if you don’t apply some type of systems methodology you can’t really be doing OD work effectively. Part of my investigation was to see what the discussions were so I could more effectively communicate and promote alternative methods.
Along the way I discovered what I would call a dark side to systems thinking.
One of the things that is a necessary requirement of systems thinking is the existence of a system. While this may seem like a bit of a ‘duh’ the existence of a system means you define some kind of a boundary around what you are looking at so you can try to understand what is happening within that boundary. With systems thinking you then stand back from what you have defined as the system and try and figure it out. This can take many forms and has numerous methodologies attached to it but one thing is common to them all; you remove yourself from what is happening to observe and understand what is going on.
It is this separation that becomes a dark side to systems thinking. First, it is highly problematic to assume that we can remove ourselves from what is happening. It creates the illusion of complete objectivity and, therefore, certainty and predictability.
Secondly, there seemed a strong resistance to a real debate around the pros and cons of systems thinking. A common theme (both explicit and implied) in many of the discussions surrounding systems thinking was that those that did not understand and apply systems thinking were inadequate in some fashion – resistant, uninformed, sadly lacking in knowledge or even downright stupid. To me, many, many of the contributors to these discussions took a very elitist position; that they were separate and distinct from the great unwashed who did not understand the nuance and art of systems thinking let alone the tremendous benefits its applications would bring.
Much like the distance required to observe a ‘system’ many contributors held a distance from those who didn’t think their way, seemingly hoping that some day, they would see the light.
I realize these are strong words, but as I read some of these discussions I was offended, angry, and troubled. Systems thinking is almost an unquestioned way of seeing the organizational world with thousands of OD professionals espousing its value. It seems to continue to get more and more complicated, with more and more methodologies to apply it, creating more and more distance from what is actually happening between people in our organizations. When that distance becomes an elitist position it feels like a very problematic dark side.
If we put aside the concept of systems we also put aside a method of abstraction. Without abstractions we are forced to be present to what is actually happening and not be separate from it. And within that present moment, along with those we are there with, we will move forward together, we will do our best to make sense of things and we do what we think is right, good or bad.
We may or may not find value in systems thinking in that moving forward but at least we would be engaged and present enough to consider the question.
Author – Tom