Systems Thinking is becoming fashionable, should we worry?

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I have been working on systems thinking and related topics for more than five years. I have often worked with large international public organizations where, whenever I mentioned systems thinking, complexity, and “systems innovation,” I used to get the same kind of look in the eyes of my interlocutors. It felt as if I was going to deliver a lecture on how to breed orchids. Invariably, after a few seconds of polite listening, they suddenly remembered they had to attend to some pressing matter.

The pieces of training I delivered on those topics most often gathered less than ten participants. Then last month, I got seventy-five. And the ones coming up are just as crowded. First, that has nothing to do with me. I believe that many people in organizations were used to a certain level of dysfunction and still believed that things would get better at some point. Now more and more people are moving on. They are not in doubt anymore; they see no solution in the status quo.

So they look for solutions. Systems thinking, with all its derivatives, seems to afford a solution. But they get it wrong. Systems thinking is not a new drug or vaccine that is going to solve all our problems. It could, but the way things stand, it cannot. The reason for this impossibility was expressed years ago by Einstein when he said that: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

That has nothing to do with how smart or educated or motivated we are, and everything to do is how we accept changing the way we think and the way we look at the world. Our education has been playing a massive role in this. We learned to converge towards a solution rather than explore, look at the goal rather than at our intentions, focus on resources rather than making sense, question inside the box rather than outside, rely on reductionism rather than accepting to deal with complexity.

Yet, one at a time, people move from the linear paradigm of the past to the systemic paradigm of the future. Even though that takes time, this is excellent news because, at some point, there will be a shift. Humanity will go over the edge because it has to.
But the system in place is, er…, very much in place. Many organizations and people are very much anchored into the value systems of the past, including selling stuff just because they have to. I strongly believe that true systems thinkers realize that money can no longer be the primary purpose, even though it is a welcome byproduct.

And there are reasons for alarm. Going back to the beginning of this article, a few years ago, systems thinkers were rare, and meeting one was an opportunity for celebration. But now, the same way I see participants coming “en masse” to learn about systems thinking, companies are flooding procurements departments with shiny offerings on systems thinking.

What worries me is that those guys are often the same one that said ten years ago that e-learning would change the face of organizations. Bottom line (and I know that there will be some naysayers who have a hard time differentiating regime change and improvement at the fringes): they are just there to seize a commercial opportunity. They are good at it, and they are not ready to stop doing it.
If you really want to get into the paradigm of systems thinking, beware of the merchants of the temple.

Au sujet de l'auteur

Stephane Baillie Gee

Stephane Baillie-Gee is a senior consultant. He works on advanced management and leadership in the scope of organizations of the future. He also helps bridging the communication gap between Western and Chinese cultures and organizations.