Systems Thinking – Being Hyper Critical

20151104_145251Before investigating what happens when systems thinking (applied where people are involved) is used to try and create certainty it is important for me to restate that I think the original contribution of systems thinking; that the relationship between things is as, or more important than the things themselves, is extremely valuable. I actually think that this premise is still at the heart of systems thinking and it is the way we have come to understand and use this premise that is problematic.

Nevertheless, since many OD practitioners DO use systems thinking in the service of certainty, the OD world has to take accountability for this and the non OD world has to be hyper critical of this kind of use.

To provide an example of this mainstream use I went to one of the LinkedIn groups I follow, did a quick search of systems thinking and the first discussion that came up took me to a web site espousing systems thinking. Below is some of the text on the home page of that web site:

When Stafford Beer originally created the Viable System Model (VSM) he was seeking to develop a “science of organisation”, a set of invariant laws that could be applied to any sort of organisation of any size. So far, we have not found any organisational context in which it does not apply. It is an approach which helps us to make sense of organisations, or groups of organisations of any degree of complexity and tells us something about how they operate, why they function the way they do and what we might be able to do to change them.

When you use the term ‘invariant laws’ and state that you have not found ‘any organisational context in which it does not apply’ you are talking certainty, or at the very least, giving the impression that if you ‘do’ this type of systems thinking you will get what you want. The last sentence is much truer to the premise of systems thinking I think but all too often some version of the preceding sentences disguise that premise.

Two concepts are critical to the idea of systems thinking; boundaries and feedback. Boundaries are a real problem for systems thinking and that problem messes up the concept of feedback.

In order to have a system that you can act on, that system needs to have boundaries, some kind of limit so you can study and model it. The problem is that it is extremely hard to define a boundary to a system; and it gets worse when people are involved!

The simple example often used to explain cybernetics (a form of systems thinking) illustrates this well. The example is that of temperature control using a thermostat in a room. The boundary would be defined as the room itself, plus the heating source, let’s say a furnace. The temperature is set and if it is colder than what is set the thermostat reads this feedback and causes the furnace to come on. Once the temperature reaches the set point the thermostat reads this feedback and turns off the furnace. Simple cybernetics.

However, let’s say you want to change this system. How do you do that? Obvious, right! You change the setting on the thermostat. Duh! Except your boundary defined as the room and furnace does not contain the person changing the setting. Well, easy enough, we will expand our boundary to include the person. But how is that person deciding on what new temperature to set the thermostat? Are they being told to? If they are then we have to expand our boundaries to include the person doing the telling. If they are deciding on their own, what are their criteria? What might be the impact on others that happen to wander into that room? Might they influence the person to make another change? If so, the boundary has to be expanded again. And on and on it goes….

So what does a mainstream system thinking do? Well they do not abandon the problematic concept of boundary. No, they create second order cybernetics!

This boundary problem is inherent in systems thinking and what happens is that the boundaries just get larger and larger, the feedback loops more and more convoluted and the systems methods created to deal with this more and more complex. Eventually what often happens is a jump into the mystical. Synchronicity, Gaia, Presence, metaphysical intervention; some jump into the realm of the highly subjective. And this jump into the subjective is supposed to create certainty, if we only get it right!

Forget the gentle in ‘ferociously gentle’, this just makes me ferociously angry!

OD practitioners get very angry as well when you put this in front of them. I have been chastised, told I do not understand systems thinking well enough, I probably can’t understand the complexity, or simply ignored. I have experienced the exact same thing that happens to systems thinking when a variable is introduced that doesn’t fit; jump to the subjective and make sense of things that way. A convenient way of ignoring the problem or masking it with complexity.


I remember years ago being in a session where we were investigating and learning systems thinking, We spent a couple of hours creating a systems diagram focusing on world hunger. It was huge and we finally stopped since the variables and feedback loops seemed endless. We then asked ourselves so what is this telling us about world hunger and what we can do about it? We looked at the diagram and came to the conclusion that we had no real idea about the dynamics of world hunger or what we could do about it. At least in terms of being certain what we did would solve the problem. That should have been a big red light right then and there! But it wasn’t. After all, organizations are not like world hunger.

Later in the session we had to work on our own organizational challenge using systems thinking. Of course this was way less complex than world hunger. But the conclusion I came to was that the real challenge was not in any system I could draw or model, it was the way people involved in the challenge, perceived things, how they made choices on that perception, the power that might affect those choices and the specific contexts in which those choices might be made. In other words, I had no idea about the dynamics of this challenge from a systems perspective. If I wanted to work on it, change it, I needed to go and interact with people and move on from there.

And that was where the red light came on, even if it was very dim and still took a number of years for it to get blindingly red enough for me to put aside mainstream systems thinking in my OD work.

The interaction model is based on transformative causality. It does not predict anything.

Interaction Model

It illustrates the process by which transformative causality happens among people. It illustrates our day-to-day experience and while thinking about our day-to-day experiences it may provide some insight and perhaps some ideas for further interaction. It illustrates the tremendous complexity of transformative causality, a complexity that we all know exists. And when used it legitimizes these day-to-day experiences in a far more real way than does systems thinking.

The two primary perspectives of mainstream OD; psychological and structural or systemic lead us directly into the storm of shame, blame and guilt. The psychological perspective leads us there by telling us that we as individuals should be able to overcome anything in our way toward success and the systemic perspective by telling us we can overcome anything by designing and building systems that cause success.

I am reminded of a song lyric by the Canadian songwriter Bruce Cockburn – If I had a rocket launcher, if I had a rocket launcher
If I had a rocket launcher, some son of a bitch would die

I hesitate to use that lyric and song as what I am describing does not match the horror of the song but at the same time I do think we need to be very angry about what mainstream OD puts in front of us and as OD practitioners we need to be very careful about how we use the power we have.

The next post will look at a few other concepts where this dynamic is or has happened.


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