Three Gateways to Systems Thinking

systems thinking Dec 01, 2019

 by Stephanie Nestlerode 

As a person who has witnessed the power of systems thinking, I’ve often wondered why we don’t see it more widely applied?  When Peter Senge’s book, “The Fifth Discipline” came out in 1990, it was a game-changer for me.  Not so much for its introduction of systems thinking, but for the intriguing possibilities Peter imagined through the practice of dialogue – which he viewed as an essential foundation for seeing systems.

Three elements must be in place to be ready for learning systems thinking.  They serve as gateways because of the habits they establish.

Welcoming Diversity.  Diversity in all things.  The pace of change is accelerating.  We are limited in what we can observe from our own personal experience.  Creating robust solutions requires learning from everyone’s perspective.  Being open vs. being closed is not a skill to be learned.  It’s an attitude to choose.  An open heart and a clear mind make it possible.

Curious Inquiry.  Infants have no concept of failure. They have beginner’s mind – focusing on what works and what doesn’t.  Their curiosity is boundless because they aren’t burdened by unrealistic expectations of themselves or others.  The focus is on learning how to learn – a concept that rarely receives attention.  Listening beyond spoken words and holding ambiguity is essential.  Moving from either/or to both/and thinking opens up fresh ideas.

Seeing Complexity.  Our ability to be in denial of existing circumstances, sometimes referred to as willful ignorance, is immense. It simplifies the world but does not reflect what’s truly happening.  Learning to ‘see’ things as they truly are is a practice that requires intention and discipline.  Challenging assumptions, starting with my own, is essential.   

With these disciplined habits in place, we are equipped to move onto nurturing the connections that matter from a systems perspective.  We can move from reactive analysis and overwhelm to working with our neighbors on leveraged solutions that serve our communities.  Informed, compassionate actions become the norm.

The planet has officially put us on the clock with a limited amount of time to avoid our own extinction.  Let systems thinking begin!