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Systems Thinking by Peter M. Senge
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Systems Thinking

Peter M. Senge


Table of Contents.
Introduction
Premises About Personal Power
Ideas About Causability


Introduction

System dynamics is the study of complex systems, including such human systems as families, organizations, cities, and nations. If you look deeply into any system and analyze the relationships between members, you will find infinite complexity.

In a systems approach to a problem, you start by realizing that there is no inherent end to a system. There is no such thing as a complete theory. The quest is to look at a problem more comprehensively. The resolutions come from rethinking how we deal with complexity. We all deal quite effectively with many highly complex tasks, like driving our cars.

How do we do it? We go through a process not unlike what someone goes through to become a concert pianist. Very few people start out playing Mozart. You start out playing something simple, like the scales. At each level we start with a degree of complexity, just within the bounds of our conscious ability or our normal awareness to grasp. Even though our normal awareness only handles a limited degree of complexity, somehow we do learn to deal with incredibly complex tasks.

Even a great pianist will often begin playing a new piece at a slow tempo. Gradually he picks up the tempo as he "grasps" the piece as a whole. When the time to perform the piece comes, the pianist no longer requires any "self-conscious," waking awareness to concentrate on where his fingers go. He frees that part of his awareness to focus purely on the aesthetic.

That process is analogous to how we deal with complexity generally. It suggests that parts of our mind deal with complexity much better than our normal, self-conscious, waking awareness. The key to educating people in systems thinking is to use a developmental process -- to replicate what the pianist goes through. Eventually the concert pianist can simply look at a piece of music, which to our eyes is hopelessly complex, and absorb it with his self-conscious awareness. He may still have to practice it, but his ability to deal with complexity has expanded. A rapport has developed within his own consciousness between his self-conscious awareness and a more automatic level of consciousness capable of dealing with much greater complexity. Scholars of complex systems have never explained how, out of the hundreds that try and fail, some people are able to masterfully lead complex organizations. We can't explain these successes (other than as blind luck), because we assume the only way people can master systems is through a self-conscious, rational process of analysis -- and few, if any, executives have the tools to do this.

In fact, people who succeed in handling complexity are working in an intuitive domain we don't even consider in our educational theories. Only through the integration of that intuitive domain with the normal, rational awareness domain will we transcend mere modeling. In our work with business executives, we start with simple models that are just within the person's ability to grasp. We use these until executives no longer have to think about them very much, and then we step up to more complex models. Simply accepting the complexity is a major step toward developing that intuitive sense. But it is very difficult for business executives to accept that complexity because many of them need to see themselves as being in control. To accept it means they must recognize two things at a gut level: 1) that everything is interconnected, and 2) that they are never going to figure out that interconnectedness.

One implication of that realization is very liberating, because not only are you never going to figure it out, but neither is anybody else. It creates an inherent equality.

In the leadership course taught through Innovation Associates, there is an exercise that takes people through a process whereby they discover that they are never going to completely figure anything out in their lives. It has a remarkable impact on people. Some can=t quite handle it and try to intellectualize it. But those who can face that simple fact will often sit back in their chairs and laugh, realizing that they are dismantling two common beliefs: first, that people can control an organization from the top or at a distance; and second, that you can ever fully understand a system or figure it out. Dismantling these beliefs is critical to piercing through the hierarchical mentalities that dominate most organizations. Most people have grown up in an authoritarian environment where their parents, teachers, or bosses provided the answers. They are absolutely convinced, deep down, that people above them know what is going on. That mentality weakens them as individuals and weakens the organization as a whole.

When a group of people collectively recognize that nobody has the answer, it transforms the quality of that organization in a remarkable way. And so we teach executives to live with uncertainty, because no matter how smart or successful you are, a fundamental uncertainty will always be present in your life. That fact creates a philosophic communality between people in an organization, which is usually accompanied by an enthusiasm for experimentation. If you are never going to get the answer, all you can do is experiment. When something goes wrong, it's no longer necessary to blame someone for screwing up -- mistakes are simply part of the experiment.

I have always felt that the potential of system dynamics was to empower people and to support the human capacity to create. But we have not clearly articulated a notion of personal power commensurate with the nature of complex systems. Most managers think they have power by virtue of controlling things. In fact, it's a facade of control -- a mutually supported illusion. Subordinates pretend they are being controlled, and superiors pretend they are controlling. At a deeper level, most people know that's not happening, but the illusion has to be chipped away. Only then is the soil fertile to grow empowered people. Only then can you start to find out how people create. They don't create by figuring things out and by controlling.

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Premises about Personal Power

Our work at Innovation Associates is based on three premises about power.

Each person has a unique personal purpose. People only begin to fulfill their creative potential when they have a high degree of personal alignment in their lives, that is, when their pursuits and conscious goals, the things they are actually committed to, are in line with their own personal purpose.

The simplest definition of personal power is one's capacity to realize one's personal purpose. A more immediate definition would be: the extent to which one can create one's life the way he or she would like it to be.

Now, the problem is that when you ask most people what they want, their wants are often not very fundamental. They are things they want to get away from, or simply material things. This reflects a lifetime of believing in supposed limits. But, if personal power is to create life as one really wants it to be, it necessarily involves collective wants -- the wants of one's immediate community and the larger world. How can one identify one's purpose in life? It's not like the neon lights flash and you hear, "This is God speaking to you. Your personal purpose, should you choose to accept it, is...."

In our terms, personal purpose exists at a level of consciousness that can never be fully conceptualized. But this does not mean that purpose is inaccessible.

This is why personal vision is so important. It is a key to unlocking the power of purpose. By vision I mean a picture of the future one wants to create. A vision is powerful to the extent that it expresses one's underlying purpose. It is the vehicle for bringing purpose into the domain of acts and commitments.

Most people who have done remarkable things in their lives have had a clear vision stemming from a deep and pervasive sense of purpose.

A second key premise regarding personal power is that what an individual holds in his consciousness tends to become real in the external world. The problem is that people not in deep touch with their personal purpose pursue objectives in conflict with that purpose. The resulting inner conflict limits their power and forces them to become highly manipulative in trying to accomplish their objectives. This is why creative power is released when an individual's vision aligns with his personal purpose. A powerful reinforcing process develops for the highly creative person: as he becomes more internally aligned, the results he creates in his life become more consistent with his personal purpose; this leads to deeper understanding of that purpose, clearer vision, and more commitment to his vision; and in turn, deeper alignment and creative capacity.

The third key premise relates individual purpose and power to an organization's capacity to create. As the process of individual visioning unfolds among a group committed to a common endeavor, the underlying purpose and vision of the group begin to emerge. Just as an individual=s capacity to create draws from this alignment of his conscious objectives and his true nature and purpose, the same dynamic appears to operate for an organization. It is the organization's vision, not the individual=s vision that matters here. The group's vision is not the vision of the most articulate or most dominant individual. It is a thing unto itself, just as the organization is an entity distinct unto itself.

A systemic view of personal power entails empowering the individual to manifest his or her own personal power simultaneously with empowering the organization to manifest its purpose. The distinction between individual and group blurs in this process, just as happens in the exceptional jazz ensemble or championship sports team. This view implies thinking of the organization as an organism. In this context, system dynamics becomes a way for the organization to know itself better and evolve its design to more effectively accomplish its purpose.

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Ideas about Causability

Most people only look at events and talk about cause in a social system as "who did what to whom."

Our present notion of causality is like the billiard balls of Newton, but we're beginning to see that this is far too oversimplified for most situations.

System dynamics looks for the causality that underlies the longer-term patterns of change in complex systems. We assume there are underlying interrelationships at deeper levels in systems and that once one understands this level, one has unique abilities to influence change. We can't ever understand those levels completely. However, we can reach plateaus of insight. Certain individuals have extraordinary skills at getting people to have those sorts of insights.

Of course, systems differ with respect to how much tolerance from error they have in their component parts. You might think that in a symphony orchestra there's room for a little sloppinessCthat the person in the back row can be slightly out of tune and no one will notice. But if the orchestra is ever going to give a genuinely exceptional performance, everybody will have to be at his or her best. Life is both hierarchical and equal. Both are perspectives that have the same validity, and they are commensurable.

The simplest and most direct way to transcend the hierarchical value system is for people to see for themselves that they do matter. Once people experience genuine alignment, they will not settle for being meaningless cogs.

Different companies work at this in different ways, but it comes down primarily to telling the truth rather than blindly accepting traditional values. It is true that in many ways the contribution of the chief engineer is more valued, but that person who screws in the bolt has to do his or her job right or the whole system can fall apart. At the level of performance, of final results, reality imposes a fundamental equality on things.

You can't simply tell a person that his or her performance is as important as the president's and get them to believe it. They have to discover it for themselves. It's unlikely that you will succeed in trying to convince someone that they are more important than they believe. Yet one of the skills of effective leaders is creating an environment wherein people naturally grow. While trying to talk people into greater self-esteem is only focusing on the symptom, there are ways by which people can be aided in discovering their true value and potential. The first task for the manager is to see the unique greatness that is there, to intuitively recognize the inherent potential in each individual, and to take a stand in his or her own mind for individuals realizing their greatness.

If the assumptions we hold in our consciousness tend to manifest, then the beliefs we hold about each other, especially the people who work for us, have a first-order effect on the behavior these people exhibit around us. We often assume that when people do not hold themselves in high regard, the problem must be with them, but the problem may lie in the interactions between them and ourselves. From a systemic perspective, the most influential changes to facilitate another individual=s development are often within our own minds.

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This article is adapted from an interview published in ReVISION Journal's Volume 7, Number 2, a special issue on Work, Economics, and Human Values: New Philosophies of Productivity and used with permission (617) 253-1575.


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