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Why do people don’t adopt #systemsthinking?

I think you will spend 330 seconds reading this post

This is a recurring question in the LinkedIn forum “Systems Thinking World” hosted by Gene Bellinger. And one that haven’t had any satisfactorily answer so far.

Indeed, I think that the opposite question is valid too and even provides a hint as to one possible answer: “why do people using systems thinking don’t reverse to another way of thinking?

A more general question might be “why do people think the way they think?

I’m a big proponent of the “structural coupling” vision of life as advocated by Maturana & Varela in their work. For the sake of my explanation, I will summarize their work by recalling that they explain how people and their environment are tightly related one to the other, and deeply influence one another.

So, whatever life we live, we’re structurally coupled with it. Our cognition (how we think) also is tightly coupled with our life. The way we think influences the way we live, and vice versa.

What does it mean? Well, that should we be presented a different way of living, we’d immediately see how it is different from what we are used to, and we’ll see how it doesn’t correspond to our habits. As a consequence, faced with novelty, we naturally see how it won’t work for us, and, consequently, we reject it – what others flagged as “change resistance” (I’m talking about this at length is my book “The Colors of Change – Change Resistance as Explained by Cybernetics”).

The same holds true for a way of thinking. Faced with a different way of thinking than the one we’re used to, we immediately see how it is different, and how it either can’t work for us, or/and that we’ve somehow managed to live sufficiently with it up to now. So why bother learn something for which we see no need? And even if we manage to understand what it can do to improve our life, the balance between the benefits and the burden of learning it usually is unfavorable.

Why do systems thinker don’t revert to simple, linear thinking? I bet it is because they find it an unsatisfactorily way of thinking for their life. Now that they’ve learned to think systemically, they’re adapted to it (whatever it is the kind of systems thinking they’re using, but this is another story).

Why do analytical (or classical) thinkers don’t change for systems thinking? I bet this is because they just don’t find the reasons in doing so. Convincing someone to change is difficult, especially if the change you bring is new (which, by definition, is alien to them since you bring it in and it doesn’t come from them). This has been stated again and again in numerous fields, the most usually cited form being the Rogers’ bell curve. If you bring something new to someone, around 2.5% will “get it” almost immediately: they are the Innovators with respect to your idea. Others just don’t get it. Or not now (and then they forget or it falls flat on its face if you don’t get enough traction).

Of course, the fact that systems thinkers are unable to settle on a single straightforward explanation of what a system is, lest what systems thinking is, makes for an easy explanation of why we have even less than Innovators getting it (compare the number of members in the STW LinkedIn group [around 18,000 to date], to, say, the overall members of LinkedIn [300,000,000+ at the date of writing of this article]).

What can we do?

Well, first question ought to be: should we do something about it?

Systems Thinkers usually assume their way of thinking is better than the casual, linear, analytical way of thinking. But is it? What would make a valid criteria for judging which way of thinking is better? By whose criteria (linear or systemic people)? Is it just a decidable question?

Is it even worth a question to ask given that self called “systems thinkers” are seemingly unable to address the definition of what their specific way of thinking is when compared to that of others, and then unable to explain it clearly (that is, in a convincing way, one that convinces other people to adopt it!) to “lay” people?

Some “systems thinkers” even go as far as telling that systemic thinking is a born trait, not a skill. I don’t subscribe to this way of thinking, though I can admit some people may have more facilities than others doing it. But is it a born trait or learned behavior?

What I think

What *I* think is that people already know how to do systems thinking. If I just stick to Dr Derek Cabrera thesis and conclusion about what a simple way of doing systems thinking could be (DSRP), I contend that everyone can do it. The main difference between casual thinking and systemic thinking would then be the depth at which we stop doing it.

Systems Thinking goes far deeper than casual thinking (and also far more broader). But then one could also say that casual thinking goes straight to the point where it feels reasoning is useful.

One could tackle systems thinking of being hair-splitting and casual thinking as concrete thinking. Who’s right? Who never satisfied him/herself of quick thinking throw me the first stone.

If systems thinking can bring light on current problems (and this is the main reason why I pursued learning about it), then I think we must find different ways of teaching it and encouraging people to learn doing it.

Although I recognize the usefulness of mainstream ST methods like Systems Dynamics, Viable System Model, Soft Systems Methodology, SODA, CSH, and similar others, I contend that we should stick to the most simple ones in order to help people step up to the plate. DSRP might be useful for that purpose, provided we show people that they already know how to do it, and that when they did it (at least a bit) in the past, it did help them.

That this article builds on my own knowledge of strength-based approaches to change is no wonder. I *am* reusing what I already know. When have you been most efficient in teaching something to someone? I bet this has been at a time when you made the effort of connecting the new knowledge to what the other person already knew, and make it fit in their cognition landscape. What about doing it with Systems Thinking?


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4 Responses to “Why do people don’t adopt #systemsthinking?”

  1. […] feel like I moved beyond ST methods (the one I cited in a previous blogpost). I was swallowed by Complexity and Ashby‘s law of requisite variety was the crack through […]

  2. AA: Very Comprehensive:

    I normally have something to disagree with or modify. ON this topic I do not have much to disagree with. This is very comprehensive, simple and easy to make a beginning yet profound to go far deeper and wider.

    BB: Robust Principles and Methods (P&M):

    In my view those principles and methods (P&M) are most successful which systematically integrate multiple diverse P&M and allow people with different capabilities to START using the simpler of them and BUILD on that knowledge and experience to GROW to use more and more of the P&M complex. The P&M complex may have to reorganize itself to be more comprehensive and potent to deal with more and more cases that arise in the evolution of concepts of different BOK.

    Implicit in this process of seeding and growing is a necessity to reject erroneous and flawed P&M to make the P&M robust and useful on an ongoing basis.

    CC: Examples of BB

    We find this in operation in many bodies of knowledge BOK —mathematics, physics, epistemology, feedback, semiotics etc. One gains deeper knowledge and begins to appreciate the body of knowledge or discovers exceptions or special cases or flaws through one’s own study, investigation and contemplation. The value is in reconciling apparent differences and integrate them.

    DD: Understanding through one’s own discoveries

    I have discovered for myself a few special cases for improvement of BOK or better understanding of the P&M of the BOK.

    I invite comments from the members of this group. Sorry, SlideShare does not provide for organizing one’s own uploads. It is just chronological.

    Data Information and Knowledge

    3 Basic + 3 Advanced Elements of Process

    The Meaning of Meaning


    Physics: Newton’s Laws of Motion>Reactive Force

    Math: Set Theory>Relation

    UseCase Modeling

    08 JUN 14

  3. wow, thanks for the long comment Putcha ! I’ll try to go and see your slides when I have a few time available.

    Much thanks again !

    • Welcome Nicolas: Yes, it was a long response but split into topics. Do take a look at the slides when you have some time and let me know your views.

      I recall reading General Systems Theory principles 1system is made of parts and 2 system is a part of a larger system but I can’t find an authentic source for it. Is there one?

      For software system development these two principles are very useful. My students corrected the ISO 9000 definition of system. It DOES NOT honor principle 2.

      PVN 08 JUN 14

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