What People Mean By “We Are Systems Thinkers”

I have been meeting lots of people lately who talk about being “systems thinkers.”  As a person who has played in the field of system dynamics and systems thinking for two dozen years, I get excited when people self-describe as playing in the same space.  To me “systems thinking” refers to classical definitions of a system and of systems thinking, such as:

System.  “A system is a set of interrelated elements.” — Russell Ackoff, 1971

Systems Thinking.  “The ability to see the world as a complex system.” — John Sterman, 2000

I have also started to listen more carefully to what people mean about what they say and what evidence they use to show what they mean.  With this listening, it seems to me that people are actually saying very different things about themselves, often with the same terms.  I have heard three very different things that people mean when they say, “systems thinking.”

Focus on systemic structures.  By systems thinking, some people mean that they focus on systemic structures.  They primarily focus on their own node, their own system, within a larger system.  They use processes like causal diagrams, rich pictures, and systems archetypes to describe their part of the system, its causes, and what they can do about it.  You can find hundreds of examples here, where I too have published.  This focus on systemic structures that are very close to their own node in the larger system seems to correlate with what I have observed to be segregating design, where everyone in the larger system tends to focus on their own local dynamics, irrespective of what others in the system are thinking or doing.

Focus on systemic decision structures.  By systems thinking, other people mean that they focus on a set of interrelated decision structures.  They primarily focus on how the decisions influencing their own node are influenced by multiple stakeholders who are each making decisions about their own nodes.  They use quantitative modeling processes like system dynamics (see my dengue modeling) and qualitative strategic modeling processes like my own GRASP and Strategic Clarity  processes, often coupled with the “systemic structures” processes described above.  With these processes, they try to see the whole, how each stakeholder contributes to causes of the problem, and how to partner around what each stakeholder could do to shift the behavior of the whole system.  This focus on systemic decision structures around their own nodes and those of related stakeholders seems to correlate with what I see as flocking design, where people and groups within a larger system pay attention to each other, reacting to each other’s movements, with the focus still primarily on one’s own resilience.

Focus on systemic agreement structures.  By systems thinking, yet other people mean that they focus on both the underlying and surface-level structures of agreements that determine the systemic decision structures.  They primarily focus on how deeper structures of embedded agreements influence the system of decisions that each stakeholder consciously or unconsciously accepts in their interactions within a system.  They use processes of co-hosting collaboration to decide together what their deeper shared purpose is within the stakeholders of a larger system, seeing what the requisite unique contributions are from each stakeholder, and together developing creative possibilities that they then leverage and tangibilize together, using processes like the Harmonic Vibrancy Move Process.  This focus on systemic agreement structures seems to correlate with what I observe to be uniting design, where people come together to redefine the underlying agreements that shape their system, the experience they have, the outcomes they achieve, and the resilience of the impacts they achieve.

So, the next time someone tells you they are a systems thinker, I invite you to perk up your ears, listen a little closer, and ask questions.  Look for the evidence of what they actually mean.  Are they focusing on (1) systemic structures to improve segregating designs, (2) systemic decision structures to support flocking designs, or (3) systemic agreement structures to co-develop uniting designs?  Those few moments of extra inquiry and evidence gathering might tell you a lot about what they actually mean.

Group Work ≠ Collaboration: 2 Ways to Make Dysfunctional Groups

A few recent stories in the mainstream press talk about how collaboration on teams is wasteful, therefore collaboration isn’t what we think it is. They’re right, mostly.

Our field research of the past decade in over 35 countries in the USA, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America, supported by our survey research in 98 countries, suggest that what people mean by collaboration varies greatly, along a continuum.  At one end of the continuum, we find groups organized to segregate people into similar general purposes, each acting only with their own perspective in mind.  At the other end of the continuum, we find groups organized to unite people into a larger whole that requires each individual’s unique contribution towards a shared deeper purpose, each keeping in mind their own perspective, that of the others in the group, and the group’s deeper purpose.  From focus on self with no conscious focus on the relationship with others to a conscious focus on self and the relationship with the other.  Somewhere in the middle, we find groups organized to work together, mostly aware of their own perspective, while aware that other groups have different perspectives that may combine or compete with their own, towards a common purpose.  Three very different ways of organizing human interactions in groups, two of them with their own dysfunctional form of group work.

Groups as segregating.  Focusing at the outcomes-noun level of perceived reality, these groups are structured to work with resource power only, depending completely on the existing capacities available.  To get work done, they tend to invest heavily in paying for lots of people to spend many hours sitting around many tables to which they make no contribution and gain no value.   People attend these meetings because they were told to, it was put in their calendar for them.  This is the phenomenon most of the “collaboration overload” criticism is rightly pointing at, where collaboration means sitting in the same room together, without clarity of a shared purpose or of the need for any of the specific people in the room.

Groups as flocking.  Focusing at the development and outcomes levels of perceived reality (verb and noun levels), these groups are structured to work with network power, leading them to invest in some people who are making many connections and bringing great creativity, while others are not.  They pay conscious attention to their own node and to the relationships with a set of nodes that influence them over time.  In these groups, people work together because this is where the action is, or where they need to be seen, where relationship is built.  Collaboration here often means lots of meetings, lots of learning conversation, and asking lots of the people into the room, especially the star contributors.

Groups as uniting.  Focusing across the potential, development, and outcomes levels of perceived reality (light, verb, and noun levels), these groups are structured to work with tangibilization power, seeing potential, pathways to manifest that potential, and rapid deployment to test that potential with specific outcomes along the way.  This leads these groups to invite the contributions of different perspectives to a deeper shared purpose that each individual is uniquely able to make. These people engage because this is how they can collaborate in service of something they deeply care about.  Collaboration in these groups requires each to bring their unique gifts, together, to be able to achieve the deeper purpose they share.

So collaboration meaning group activity might not work because of the underlying agreement about what we are working on, about who needs to be in the room to serve that purpose, and how we work together, not just because it is people coming together. Maybe collaboration is not equal to group work.

2 Reasons Why We Tend to Choose Separation and Outcomes Now, When We Prefer Uniting and Greater Overall Value

We tend to choose to be with people who think and look like us.  We also tend to choose outcomes that benefit us now.  These tendencies lead us to focus on activities that separate us and provide short-term outcomes.

When we reflect on what we really want, we say that we want healthy relationships, greater social harmony, learning and innovation, and greater overall wellbeing.  We know that these desires mean that we benefit from being with people who think and look different from us–they bring something to the game that we don’t.  We know that we also benefit from working on things together that provide the largest benefit to us over time.  A good education or a good highway take time to build and require many people.  We know this.  So why don’t we always do it?

Research on cognitive biases finds that people tend to think in ways that vary from what they rationally would do.  Social identity research shows that people tend towards groups where they identify as a member (the in-group, such as family and close friends) and not towards groups where they do not identify as a member (the out-group).  Hyperbolic discounting research shows that people tend to disproportionately prefer immediate rewards to future rewards.  These theories argue that, in human evolution, in-group and right-now preferences probably were very important when we were hunter gatherers.  As societies began to gather in large cities that are globally connected, dealing with large-scale, highly complex issues such as nuclear warfare, poverty, water, climate change, terrorism, and health, these previously healthy, innate preferences might be getting in the way of what people actually prefer.

Choosing the in-group and outcomes-now leads to separation, a form of human interaction that I suggest leads to lots of people working on what seem to be similar issues, on different elements in different places at different times.  While these separate actions might have some positive local impacts, they cannot achieve sustained, large-scale impact on complex, multi-dimensional issues that require a multi-pronged, same-place-and-time approach.  These more complex issues require identifying with people who are similar and different, each bringing their own unique contributions, and focusing on short and long-term outcomes, a uniting form of human interaction.

While our human cognitive biases tend to carry us toward separation, we prefer and need to be able to also unite, to collaborate on many of the more difficult challenges and opportunities facing us.  We can choose to interact in a more united way.  It is a choice, an agreement we can make, for ourselves, with each other, for our present and for our future, which is what we prefer.

How Do You Organize for Collaborative Action?

How does one organize for collaborative action?  It seems that only a small percentage of lots of attempts at collaboration are being successful.

Sometimes people naturally segregate, with each one basically doing his or her own thing, singing their own song.  Sometimes people flock, flowing as individuals somewhat together, singing the same song.  And, sometimes people become a whole that brings out their individual best, creating a harmonic through a specific synthesis of their unique voices.  Three very different ways in which people interact: (1) segregating; (2) flocking; (3) uniting.

Does the difference matter?  As people we tend to organize our interactions to increase our ability to achieve greater impact, resilience, and creativity with a more engaging experience.  People seem to find these characteristics critical to being able to work together, and to being able to achieve movement on large-scale social issues.

What drives this difference in how people come together?  Whether they segregate, flock, or unite?  Current theories suggest this is driven by an endowment effect, leadership, or luck.  The endowment effect suggests that the difference is because of something special the people have—they are smarter, wealthier, better educated, more experienced.  The leadership effect suggests that an individual or group was able to envision and engage people in a specific form of interaction.  The luck effect suggests it just happened somehow.  Each of these three is hard to replicate.

Is there another, simpler explanation of why people tend to segregate, flock, or unite?  Maybe complexity theory can show us something.  Complexity theory looks for the simplest explanation: what is the simplest set of rules that guide the behavior of an individual can explain the observed social behavior when many individuals interact?  Can a high variety of behaviors be better explained by (1) complexity in the way 3-4 simple principles intermingle or by (2) the complicated number of ways in which a wide breadth of number of variables with a depth of details interact?  Complexity theory has shown that bird flocking can be explained by 3 principles: keep in the same general direction of the others; keep some separation from the others; and do not run into anything.  Ant trails can be explained by 4 principles: take a couple of small steps and turn; smell for pheromones; follow pheromone trail to food (where pheromones get weaker); drop pheromones on way home (where pheromones get stronger).

Likewise, maybe complex human behavior can be explained by 4 simple principles—how people consciously or unconsciously answer four big questions:

  1. How much is there (Economic)
  2. Who decides and enforces (Political)
  3. What criteria (Cultural)
  4. What rules (Social)

Can we explain the 3 observed behaviors with specific kinds of responses to these four questions?

  1. Segregating. Assume scarcity of resources—there is not enough—with one primary relationship deciding and enforcing (like the boss for the whole group), focusing on the outcomes to be achieved with the scarce resources in a way that satisfies the primary relationship (in this case, the boss).  Designed to separate, interactions are transactional, to improve one’s own health and growth.  Get people to do the jobs required to achieve the outcomes through their own specific tasks.  Each replaceable person is made to focus on doing only their own part.  These tend to be the principles when you find dozens to hundreds of small groups each working on their own part of what seems to be a higher principle, like how to reform education or health care.
  2. Flocking. While assuming sufficiency of resources – there can be enough for me and for you – primarily for your own self or your own group, pay attention to your relationship with others, moving generally in the same direction, toward a similar outcome, focusing on how being aware of others can help move you towards the desired outcomes.  Designed to flock, interactions are relational, working on one’s own together.  Everyone focuses on doing their part, as it relates to others.
  3. Uniting. Assume abundance of resources – in relationship to the potential and dynamics of systems of resources, there is enough for all – with vibrant relationships for self, other, group, nature, and spirit.  Designed to collaborate, focus on the interaction of the unique contributions each person makes to their own development and to the whole, as it tangibilizes the available potential.

What outcomes are we seeing?  With segregation-based principles, paying attention only to one’s own outcomes, individual efforts are able to achieve moderate levels of impact, usually with low resilience to the ever-changing environment.  Seeming success comes in spite of the huge costs of scarcity of not paying attention to others, creativity, and potential.

Many people are well aware of this experience, and experiment with flocking-based principles, where they share information with others, and attempt to work generally in the same direction.  We find through cooperative coordination these efforts are able to achieve more significant impacts with a bit more resilience, as long as each of the involved groups is also successful.

We are also finding groups working with uniting-based principles, who are able to continuously bring out the best in each other, constantly exploring each other’s individual and collective potential, resilient in shifting with the ever-changing environment, often generating those changes.

We are trying these principles ourselves.  Most of our work at Vibrancy focuses on taking on collaborative efforts based on uniting principles, whether large-scale social change, such as regional food systems, complementary currencies, toxic-free economies, retrofitting regions, or small-scale, community-based efforts, such as schools, companies, government agencies, or local communities.  We are learning about how to apply these principles in a wide variety of settings.

We synthesize what we are finding about co-hosting collaboration in the O Process, where highest impact resilience starts with the “we” available in a shared deeper purpose, then clarifies what specific voices are needed to make unique contributions to achieve the deeper purpose.  We can then understand together where to dedicate our individual and collective efforts to achieve the outcomes we desire collectively and individually within the resilient dynamics of the system of our interactions.  It turns out to be much easier than most of us think, once we shift the principles guiding our interactions.  From separating principles, we can only move alone, never together.  That would be impossible, blue-sky thinking.  From flocking principles, we can only move with others, never united.  That would be impossible, soft and fuzzy process.  From uniting, we can achieve our own health and growth, in relationship with others who are also contributing with us to what we want.