Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.
I had the pleasure recently of serving as a faculty member for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s newly launched national fellowship, the Community Leadership Network. The Foundation had selected me as a national fellow in the early ‘90s for a previous version of this powerful leadership-development experience, so I was thrilled to be able to give back to this latest generation of fellows. The Foundation selects fellows in recognition of their strong potential as transformative social change agents. The latest cohorts have a strong focus on racial equity and healing, and also on improving outcomes across America for vulnerable children. The new fellows are everything that I imagined they would be: passionate, generous, accomplished and generally brilliant. They are also determined to change the world for the good.
As a facilitator, my task was to introduce the leadership cohorts (four regional groups and one national) to the difficult but critically important discipline of Systems Thinking, an essential tool for leadership and creativity. I have written extensively about this subject in a chapter of Genership 1.0, my recent book helping leaders move beyond the traditional leadership paradigm toward shared community creativity. Our work unfolded over a series of meetings with local teams in New Orleans, New Mexico, Mississippi and Michigan, and also one in Los Angeles, serving fellows drawn from all over the country. The teams began to learn the core concepts of Systems Thinking while experimenting with diagramming tools using real community challenges and projects drawn from their experiences.
The experience of facilitating this learning served as a stark reminder of the complexities that face vulnerable children in our society today. Rarely are real-world situations amenable to simple, “common sense” solutions. The groups explored a variety of urgent threats facing their communities—spiking youth homicides, mounting imprisonment among black men, rising unemployment and dropout rates, increasing numbers of teen pregnancies and an avalanche of referrals from schools to the juvenile-justice system. These examples reminded us that such difficulties stem from a spectrum of interrelated factors, a matrix in which seemingly simple interventions yield perverse, unintended consequences. A simple solution to crime (e.g., incarceration) can become the source of other problems (e.g., broken families, joblessness) and so on, in vicious and perplexing feedback loops.
Throughout the workshops, the teams grappled with the insight that all too often common sense is not enough to achieve our most profound aspirations. To quote Einstein once more, “Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age 18.” In many cases, what seems like common sense—the practice of confronting difficult and complex issues with tried-and-true analysis and action plans—has actually compounded the problems we set out to solve. Too often we find ourselves living in the wreckage of yesterday’s common sense. We borrow to get out of debt, fight to end wars, retreat to confront our problems and blame others to promote responsibility. Spouting cogent explanations for last year’s disasters, we then repeat them, living out the insanity of doing the same thing while expecting change.
It is not possible to summarize in broad strokes the powerful set of tools that Systems Thinking provides to leaders and creators seeking “uncommon sense.” What does the phrase mean? I think of uncommon sense as pragmatic actions and solutions grounded in painstaking learning. Informed by trial and error, uncommon sense grows out of systems wisdom. It leads to meaningful, desired change. My chapter on Systems Thinking is available here to those interested in a substantial introduction to the topic, particularly as it relates to leadership and creativity within communities. The balance of this essay will identify three shifts in understanding associated with Systems Thinking that unlock promising pathways to uncommon sense. While many intellectually grasp these shifts quickly, to put them into consistent practice in actual work is much harder.
1. Seeing Through Objects to Their Underlying Dynamic Nature
In traditional everyday thinking, we work to conceptualize objects. Objects maintain their identity through time. So if you walk into a kitchen, for example, you will see furniture, appliances, utensils. To see a kitchen in the systems view, however, you need to look behind and beyond these objects—through them—to the energy flows that pass within and around them. The systems view of a kitchen would notice what moves and changes within it. As a system, a kitchen is a place through which calories and nutrients are collected, cooled, heated, processed, ingested and discarded.
Consider a school. In the traditional object view, we see computers, chairs, desks, teachers, students, books, rooms, etc. The systems view, in contrast, focuses not on these objects, but on the energy flows; not just the physical movement of these through other structures (classrooms, buildings, etc.), but the flows of information and the development of skills unfolding within and around them. These inform dynamic changes in brain patterns—the patterns of thinking in the minds of teachers and learners—as students move through time and in combination/recombination with evolving patterns of peers, instructors, parents and community representatives.
Think about poverty. As an object, we think of poverty as a state or condition into which a person or community falls. In normal thinking we conceive of poverty as a status, with the idea that there are a certain number of people who possess the status in the same way that they could possess another attribute, like having dark hair or a certain eye color. To reimagine poverty as a dynamic pattern, as a set of flows, we would see that every person is associated with variable financial dimensions that change over time: cash, income and spending, and dynamic associations with tangible and intangible property (dwellings, tools, clothes, art works, means of transportation). We would see that people also trade their performance and the use of their property for income flows. Their extent and quality are other ways to think about poverty. People with strong and steady flows are not poor, while those with meager flows suffer in poverty. The systems vision of poverty is related to the object vision, but substantially different in apprehension and approach. The systems vision of poverty opens up a range of possible leverage points that are much less visible when we conceive of poverty as a status.
There is no object or state that cannot be conceptualized in dynamic terms. Underlying every object is a more complex process in which that object becomes and recedes. A solid tree can be imagined as a dynamic energy pattern, a river of energy mediating sunlight, moisture and a flow of matter pulled from the soil and returned to it through time in a loop. Every object can be represented or understood as a set of flows. To see the world in these terms provides a pathway to uncommon sense, because it opens up thinking about how what appears to be a static or stable object can change and evolve over time.
2. Seeing Beyond Isolated Factors to Their Underlying Interrelated Nature
In normal, everyday thinking, we do not deeply investigate networks of relationships among objects or events. When we meet someone new, we might not fully consider the network of relationships that produced or influenced the meeting. Similarly, when we have a falling out with someone, we might not consider the network of relationships that could be affected by that disruption. When we experience illness, we might not work to imagine the sequence of interrelated variables that produced it: exposure over time to a pathogen, stress that compromises our immunity, and factors such as age and diet. When something breaks—imagine a leaking water pipe—we may not consider how the pipe has been slowly eroding over many years through its corrosive interaction with minerals in the water it carries.
Our everyday minds are able to extract limited sequences of experience from the flow of time and focus upon them as isolated events. Reflect for a few minutes and you will realize that this is a common feature of normal consciousness: to replay short experiences in isolation from the stream that preceded and followed them, like a piece of looped video. We may do this with experiences that are particularly meaningful to us in both positive and negative ways: going on a first date, getting hired, getting fired, getting married, giving birth, suffering an injury, winning a race. Our minds are trained to slice and dice time and then to focus upon discrete sequences, attaching meaning, drawing conclusions and framing theories based upon discrete samples drawn from vast and eternally flowing rivers of experience.
In contrast to this everyday approach to thought, a systems view focuses attention on the network of relationships that produce an event, object or situation, and also on how that network may influence its character or behavior. Imagine listening to a piece of music and focusing not on the notes, but on the pauses and silences that connect them. Imagine looking at a still image and focusing not on the picture itself but rather on the interrelationships between the light, the picture’s materials and the human eye that perceives it. Consider a basketball team: One might look at the statistical performance of individual players; on the other hand, in a systems view, one would look at how the players interact. How many times do they pass the ball before they shoot it? What is their defensive and offensive configuration as group? How fast do they move the ball up the court, and how do the activities of running and passing combine in their games? Similarly, in thinking about the health and welfare of a community, we might focus on isolated statistics: average incomes, property values, academic performance of schools and crime rates. In a systems view, we would go deeper, focusing on how these factors affect one another.Are increasing crime rates causing decreasing property values? Is low academic performance decreasing earnings in the community?
No object, event or person stands in true isolation. Everything exists within complex, interrelated networks. An electric outlet can be seen as the tentacle of a power source many miles away; a touchdown in a football game is the product not just of the receiver’s footwork, but of a network of interrelated activity involving the linemen, blockers, quarterback, play design, and relative strength and skill of the defense. To understand a referent from a systems perspective isto observe its relationships and networks over time, to explore how they may affect its nature and our experience of it.
3. Seeing Ourselves Embedded Within Our Thinking
In a workshop during the active period of my own leadership development as a Kellogg Fellow, I heard Systems Thinking guru Peter Senge say this: “We do not understand the world that we see; we see the world that we understand.” This profound thought has stayed with me over many years and I use it regularly in my leadership-development practice. What does it mean?
In the Genership chapter on CoThinking, I discuss the matter at some length. In a nutshell, we sometimes falsely believe that the world stands apart from our thinking about it, that we can somehow know reality as it is in itself, as it would be without our interest in it. A limitation of being human is that we can never know the world in this way. If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? The question is senseless. If there is no person, then there is no tree, there is no falling, there is no concept of sound. Ideas themselves emerge from the entanglement of our human minds with reality. We cannot write ourselves out of our equations. Our schools may have taught us to write in an objective voice to give our thoughts the illusion of objectivity and authority. But they remain illusive despite that objective voice. There are no ideas, observations, experiments or truths without people to think, see, test and know. Our minds alter the landscape they come to observe. We never see the world as it is; we rather see it as it is for us. In the words of the famous biologist, Ruth Hubbard, “Every theory is a self-fulfilling prophesy that orders experience into the framework that it provides.”
In normal thought and analysis, we ignore this influence that we bring to our observations. Imagine how most of us react to being caught in a traffic jam. We generally see ourselves as victims. Who creates the traffic jam? All of those other drivers who don’t belong on this road! Those deficient highway engineers who failed to design efficient flows! Those inferior urban planners who neglected to account for the increasing number of incompetent drivers! In a systems view, however, we see the absurdity that everyone in the traffic jam blames the delays they face on everyone else. Who creates the traffic jam? Of course, we do it to ourselves. In another context, imagine three investigators thinking about the youth homicide rate in a particular community. One is a detective, another a social psychologist, the third a youth advocate. As they think about the tragic experience of seeing a number of youth murdered in their community, we can imagine that they will tend to conceive of the problem in radically different ways. The detective may want to think about the perpetrators and whether they are all being apprehended and punished. He may worry about the impact on future crimes if they are not. The psychologist may want to think about the social and cultural forces that promote violence, and how the perpetrators and victims might have been redirected toward less aggressive choices. The youth advocate, in contrast, may see community violence as the result of failing to fund positive developmental activities for youth. These systems views represent a spectrum of valid approaches driven not by the case facts, but by the thinkers’ mental models and perspectives. And of course, we ourselves can imagine many others.
Systems thinking calls us to see how our personal understandings—our desires, expectations, goals, theories, beliefs, prejudices—radically shape and influence what we see in the world, just like a pair of tinted and refracted lenses would color, clarify and distort our vision of our surroundings.
While these three mind shifts informing the discipline of Systems Thinking offer several entrance points, they do not come close to capturing all there is to say about the powerful insights that this way of seeing the world offers. They do, however, provide us with a way to begin, a pathway to discover the promise of uncommon sense.
My next adventure in helping leaders learn about Systems Thinking will be at the upcoming AshokaU Exchange in Washington D.C. I hope that you will join me there!