Systems Thinking – Being Somewhat Critical

20151104_145251In the last post it was stated that one of the ways of balancing mainstream OD perspectives required being hyper critical of current content and processes in the OD world.

Let’s look at systems thinking from a ‘somewhat critical’ perspective and we’ll work our way up to hyper critical in the next post

Systems thinking tends to be seen as one of the foundational disciplines espoused in the OD world. I was introduced to systems thinking in the early 1990’s (as many people were) through the book The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge. I was trained in systems thinking by Innovation Associates and used the ideas extensively.

I think one of the biggest contributions systems thinking has made to our understanding of organizations is that the relationships between things are as important or perhaps even more important than the things themselves. Systems thinking asked us to think bigger than the pieces and to try and see some kind of whole, that whole being a system.

I still think this contribution is extremely important. I also think that systems thinking has morphed into a discipline of predictability and certainty, or at least an attempt to do that in organizations. A good way to understand this is to take a simple look at kinds of causality.

Formative causality.  This means that something is ’caused’ by design. An example is that of an oak tree. Within the acorn is the ‘design’ of an oak tree. If you plant the acorn and given the appropriate conditions for growth, the acorn ‘forms’ an oak tree. The process of formative causality is tremendously complex but the basic premise is that an acorn gives you an oak tree, nothing else. You can predict that you will get an oak tree by planting the acorn. Formative causality has a strong component of predictability.

Rational causality. This means something is caused by rational thought and thus rational causality is primarily focused on humans. A person can think something, make a choice about that thinking and then cause something to happen by acting on that choice. You cannot predict what someone’s choice may be, given a specific scenario, and the more complex the scenario the higher number of choices that are likely to be available. Predictability fades considerably with rational causality.

Transformative causality. This means something is caused through interaction between people. Two or more people interact within a given scenario and choices emerge through that interaction that cause things to happen by acting on those choices. For example you may go and interact with a colleague being quite sure of what you want to do, and during the course of that interaction new ideas emerge and a different choice is made. Predictability fades further with transformative causality but the outcomes are not necessarily unrecognizable.

What has happened to mainstream systems thinking is that it is based on formative causality. In other words, what mainstream systems thinking leads you to believe is that if you design your organizational systems well enough, if you think systems well enough you should be able to predict the outcome of those systems.


Most formal organizational processes, some of the ones we have been focusing on in OUCH! are based in systems thinking, explicitly or otherwise. The premise is, if you design the process or system correctly you will get the result you want. A good strategy gives you growth, a well designed performance management system gives you good performance, a good change management plan gives you smooth change and on and on it goes.

The variable that gets lost in all this is that where people are involved, formative causality is hardly at play at all. Even rational causality is not nearly as important as transformative causality in organizations!

Organizations operate from transformative causality and it is firmly founded on unpredictability and uncertainty. For the most part, mainstream systems thinking is at odds with how organizations actually function!

That last statement is not at all popular in OD circles. But lets look at what happens when you try really hard to make systems thinking, as it now tends to be used, ‘work’ in organizations.

That is the next post and I’ll call it hyper critical….



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