I hesitate to publish this, as I may be barking up completely the wrong tree, but I decided to just put it out there and see if it resonates with people. I’ll start with two (hopefully) uncontroversial points about the world of systems thinking:
- Firstly, the world of systems thinking is surprisingly tribal and curmudgeonly. Once you get past the people using the word ‘systems’ to sound fashionable or dress up their existing consulting offerings, and get into communities that are properly embedded in the theory as well as the practice, it won’t be long before you hear disparaging comments about who ‘gets it’ and who doesn’t, and you’ll be asked questions by people trying to figure out which team you’re on. This isn’t universal, and things are definitely getting better, but the undercurrent is there. Irony: we prize thinking that can hold multiple perspectives in mind, but when we start talking about how to think that way, we struggle to hold holders of multiple perspectives in the same room.
- Secondly, the world of systems thinking overflows with frustration that ‘no one else gets it’. You hear systems-led consultants struggling to sell systems concepts into organisations, employees who have caught the systems bug feeling isolated because they are seen as ‘thinking funny’ compared to everyone else, and a general despair that non-systemic thought patterns are destroying the world, but the world doesn’t seem to notice or care.
Now for the third point, and this is where I’m going to go out on a bit of a limb. It’s that a lot of systems thinkers seem to be carrying a disproportionate level of past trauma. I’m basing this on the small proportion of people I know in the systems world with whom I have a close relationship, so I could be wrong, and it’s hard to know for sure because it’s not something that people talk about a whole lot. So let me use myself to illustrate:
As a child, I went to a small, private, religious, parent-run school until I was 11. It was closed-off from the outside world, and there were only about a dozen students. It had good points and bad points, but overall I did fine. From 11 though, I was sent to a pretty rough state-run high school with 1200 students, and it soon became apparent that the social skills I needed to fit into this environment were basically non-existent. Not that I would have even known what that meant at the time – I just knew after a few weeks that I had somehow turned into an outcast, and it was OK for everyone to be consistently horrible to me. I didn’t stop being very bright and very curious, so I got on very well with teachers, because I genuinely found their subjects interesting. It took me a couple of years to catch on that this was just compounding the problems with my peers.
Over that five years I spent most of my time watching. I wasn’t welcome in any social setting in school, so I just observed from a careful distance, and bit by bit started to understand the rules of the game. By the time I was in sixth year most of my worst tormentors had left, I had built friendships with a good number of people, and I was well set to go off and thoroughly enjoy university, which I did 🙂 .
But those first five years of high school were absolutely brutal.
Now here’s the thing: What difference did it make, at that formative period of my life, to have this experience? Many differences no doubt, but one thing it forced on me was to learn to be OK taking the outsider’s perspective. I noticed things that you don’t notice so easily when you’re an insider: How people will say different things and become different people in order to stay in with different social groups, how much more important group identity is for most people than reality, the depths that people will stoop to when driven by a crowd, how quickly false information gets amplified around the system if the right person sets it off, and how all these kinds of factors inter-relate and compound one another. In other words, I was taking a systemic perspective.
This is my story, but it’s amazing how often, when I’ve got to know other people in the systems world well, they’ve shared similar experiences, of trauma either in their family or their school or their work or their personal lives. I’m not saying for a moment that trauma is some kind of pre-requisite for being good at thinking systemically. But I do wonder if for many people systemic thinking is a kind of epiphenomenon, a side effect that happens from going through a period of social or professional ostracisation, and being forced to find meaning in the patterns that only become visible from the outsider’s perspective.
If there’s something in this, then it has a number of implications. For example, could it be that the curmudgeonliness of many systems thinkers, which I mentioned at the outset, is a consequence of the pain from which their way of thinking was born? That the community of systems thinkers is also the community of outsiders, who both desperately want to belong but deep down don’t want to be hurt by getting too close?
And if there’s any truth to any of this, then maybe we have a much bigger problem, which is that the approach to thinking that could help to save the world is being carried around by people who don’t particularly want to be part of it.
I’ll climb back in off my limb now … very interested to know what people think.