Systems Thinking

Taking the approach proposed by Ray Ison from the Open University in London we approach Systems Thinking (here is the wikipage) as an art of juggling with 3 balls:

– the B-ball of Being. Juggling is a particularly apt metaphor because good practice results from centring your body and connecting to the floor. So juggling arises from a particular ‘disposition’ or embodiment. Effective juggling is thus an embodied way of knowing.

-the E-ball of Engaging with a ‘real-world’ situation. It is an engagement that can be experienced as messy and complex, or experienced as a situation where there has been a failure or some other unintended consequence. Or the ‘real world’ could be experienced as simple, or complicated or as a situation or as a system.

-the M-ball of Managing. This is concerned with juggling as an overall performance. The term ‘managing’ is often used to describe the process by which a practitioner engages with a ‘real-world’ situation. This is a special form of engagement. Managing also introduces the idea of change over time, in both the situation and the practitioner.

During the workshop we will touch upon the main insights from various waves of systems thinking, in the words of the Open Uni again:

  1. Systems thinking respects complexity, it doesn’t pretend it’s not there. This means, among other things, I accept that sometimes my understanding is incomplete. It means when I experience a situation or an issue as complex, I don’t always know what’s included in the issue and what’s not. It means I have to accept my view is partial and provisional and other people will have a different view. It means I resist the temptation to try and simplify the issue by breaking it down. It also means I have to accept there is more than one way of understanding the complexity.Complexity can be quite scary. But it need not be: complexity becomes frightening when I assume I ought to be able to ‘solve’ it. Systems thinking allows me to let go of this notion and allows me to use a multiplicity of interpretations and models to form views and ideas about the complexity, how to comprehend it, and how to act purposefully within it.
  2. Systems thinking attends to the connections between things, events and ideas. It gives them equal status with the things, events and ideas themselves. So, systems thinking is fundamentally about relationship and process. It is often the relationships between things, events and ideas that give them their meaning. Patterns become important. The nature of the relationships between a given set of elements may be manifold. They may be causal (A causes, leads to, or contributes to, B); influential (X influences Y and Z); temporal (P follows Q); or relate to embeddedness (M is part of N). These relationships spring to mind immediately but there are many others, of course.This attention to relationships between things, events and ideas means I can observe patterns of connection that give rise to larger wholes. This gives rise to emergence. Thinking systemically about these connections includes being open to recognizing that the patterns of connection are more often web-like than linear chains of connection.
  3. Systems thinking makes complexity manageable by taking a broader perspective. When I was studying engineering as an undergraduate, we were taught to break down problems into their component parts. This approach is so deeply entrenched in western culture it seems natural and obvious to anyone brought up or educated in this culture that this is the way to tackle complex problems.

    While this approach is powerful for some problems, it’s hopeless for others. For example, it now seems clear that climate change induced by human activity is likely to have major impacts on the planet, its environments, and its living organisms, including people. But all of these effects are so interdependent it is impossible to discover what the effects are likely to be by breaking the problem down.

    Systems thinking characteristically moves one’s focus in the opposite direction, working towards understanding the big picture – the context – as a way of making complexity understandable. Most people recognize they have been in situations where they ‘can’t see the wood for the trees’. Systems thinking is precisely about changing the focus of attention to the wood, so that you can see the treesin their context.

    Understanding the woodland gives new and powerful insights about the trees. Such insights are completely inaccessible if one concentrates on the individual trees.

Another useful overview of systems thinking is given by Michael Jackson (ehm.. no not that one, the one at Hull university). In his Critical Systems Practice and Total Systems Intervention he proposes a meta methodology tapping into the wealth of insights from various schools of systems thinking -ranging from hard systems, soft systems, cybernetics, complexity science and critical systems heuristics. In his System Of System Methodologies he compares approaches focusing on participants’ perspectives -ranging from unified (consensus), pluralist to coercive (situations of conflict and inequality). He then ranks the approaches based on the level of complexity that they can tackle.







With each of the clusters of systems comes a cultural metaphor that symbolises the field of situations: unitary simple systems are referred to as “machines”, more complex ones as “brains” or “processes of flux and transformation” (we like to include forest ecology here as we are living inside of one at Auroville), pluralist ones as “political or cultural systems”, and coercive ones as “prisons” or “carnival” .  We are sure to play around with those images during the workshop, perhaps spiced up with some Imaginization -as developed by Morgan (1997).


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