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Winner of the 2011 Independent Association of Business Top Leader Award; Orrin Woodward shares his leadership secrets.

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Recognizing System Loops in Life

Posted by Orrin Woodward on March 9, 2011

Systems Thinking has been defined as an approach to problem solving, by viewing “problems” as parts of an overall system, rather than reacting to specific parts, outcomes or events and potentially contributing to further development of unintended consequences.  In other words, systems thinking focuses on cyclical processes rather than linear “cause and effect” events.  Peter Senge, the insightful author of the Fifth Discipline, wrote, “Structures of which we are unaware hold us prisoner. Conversely, learning to see the structures within which we operate begins a process of freeing ourselves from previously unseen forces and ultimately mastering the ability to work with them and change them.”  Detailed knowledge in specialized fields has helped man improve his quality of life by dividing the workload into manageable sized tasks, but it also has had a downside.  The fractionalization of knowledge, caused by specialization, has taught many to be experts on one tree, while remaining clueless on the forest that it lives in.  Senge wrote, “In many ways, the greatest promise of the systems perspective is the unification of knowledge across all fields – for these same archetypes (systematic structures) recur in biology, psychology, and family therapy; in economics, political science, and ecology; as well as management.”  Systems thinking is not one thing but a set of habits or practices within a framework that is based on the belief that the component parts of a system can best be understood in the context of relationships with each other and with other systems, rather than in isolation. The fable of the blind men and elephant captures the essence of the systematic mindset, revealing how snapshots of individual truths are connected together systematically, discovering the underlying system archetype that connects the seemingly isolated data points.

Once upon a time, there lived six blind men in a village. One day the villagers told them, “Hey, there is an elephant in the village today.” They had no idea what an elephant is. They decided, “Even though we would not be able to see it, let us go and feel it anyway.” All of them were guided to the elephant. Everyone of them touched the elephant. “Hey, the elephant is a pillar,” said the first man who touched his leg. “Oh, no! it is like a rope,” said the second man who touched the tail. “Oh, no! it is like a thick branch of a tree,” said the third man who touched the trunk of the elephant. “It is like a big hand fan” said the fourth man who touched the ear of the elephant. “It is like a huge wall,” said the fifth man who touched the belly of the elephant. “It is like a solid pipe,” said the sixth man who touched the tusk of the elephant. They began to argue about the elephant and everyone of them insisted that he was right. It looked like they were getting agitated, each blind man wondering how the others could be so stupid. Each believing they had the truth, since he felt it with his own hands. A wise man was passing by and he saw this. He stopped and asked them, “What is the matter?” They said, “We cannot agree to what the elephant is like.” Each one of them told what he thought the elephant was like. The wise man calmly explained to them, “All of you are right and all of you are wrong. The reason each of you is telling it differently is because each one of you touched a different part of the elephant. Each of you has a partial truth.  The elephant has all the features that each of you described, but isn’t fully what you described unless you combine all of your answers.”

Each of the blind men has touched upon a truth of the elephant, but individually, none of them had the whole truth.  How many issues in life, where people argue from their specific experiences, insisting upon their version of truth, when actually, in many cases, the truth cannot be understood without a systematic mindset?  Only when the individuals realize that they are all part of the system, will they seek out alternative perspectives, in a search for the invisible, but active systems archetype.   Henry Hazlitt, one of the best systems thinkers in economics, discussed the biggest problem in economics is a lack of systematic thinking on the effects of government actions, writing in his classic Economics in One Lesson, “The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups. Nine-tenths of the economic fallacies that are working such dreadful harm in the world today are the result of ignoring this lesson. Those fallacies all stem from one of two central fallacies, or both: that of looking only at the immediate consequences of an act or proposal, and that of looking at the consequences only for a particular group to the neglect of other groups.”  Minimum wage laws are an excellent example of the unintended consequences of government intervention.  In a goal of increasing wages for people, the government mandated a minimum wage, but, if the wage is above the going market rate, business owners, who have employees, will adjust the total downward, leaving some unemployed, in order to still run a profitable business. The government can mandate a higher wage, but not the business owners response in a free society.  Thus, when it raises the minimum wage, the system responds by reducing employment, leaving chronic unemployment as the only lasting legacy of government’s interventions. System thinking, in other words, requires a long term view, not studying just the short term effects, but also the secondary effects of every action upon the system archetype.  The key to mastering systems thinking is to see the trees as part of a forest, searching for patterns in the data where others see only events. One must see through the apparent complexity to discover the simple structures that produce predictable outcomes systematically.   

Organizational theorist Charles Kiefer describes the systemic mindset, “When this switch is thrown subconsciously, you become a systems thinker ever thereafter. Reality is automatically seen systematically as well a linearly . . . . ‘Systemic’ becomes a way of thinking (almost a way of being) and not just a problem solving methodology.”  That switch is like viewing an autostereogram, a single-image stereogram (SIS), designed to create the visual illusion of a three-dimensional (3D) scene from a two-dimensional image in the human brain. The brain must be trained to see the (3D) view within the (2D) picture, overcoming the normally automatic coordination between focusing and vergence.  Magic Eye produces books filled with random dot autostereograms that one can study for hours at a time.  When first attempting to see the (3D) picture, it can be a frustrating experience, but with enough practice, one can develop the skills to routinely see past the (2D) surface into the (3D) reality.  In a similar way, one’s mind can be trained to recognize the systematic (3D) order hidden beneath the apparent (2D) chaos of the surface data. Naturally, the mind defaults to simplistic “cause and effect” linear (2D) thinking, but when the world of process loops (3D) is discovered, one will never view it the same again. In other words, systems are all around us, but the cyclical (3D) process loops are hidden in the autostereograms of linear (2D) “cause and effect” explanations.  For example, when watching a team of mountain climbers scale a cliff, one can recognize the interdependence of the climbers by the ropes attaching each to the other.  Imagine five climbers, all connected by ropes and pulleys to ensure their safety, scaling a cliff thousands of feet up.  The five climbers are a system, each action by one of them affects the actions of the rest.  No climber could climb to the top if the others chose to rest. In fact, even if one of the climbers chose to rest, it would be doubtful whether the other four could scale the cliff without his help. The role of the leader, in this case, is to orchestrate all of the climbers, moving in a system up the cliff side.  If one is tired, then they must all rest, as their efforts will be in vain, leading only to fatigue and frustration, not the results intended.  Conversely, a leader who moves to fast, leaving the other climbers in the dust, will only exhausts himself upon the systematic constraints applied by the rope.  The leader, in this system, confronts a balancing act. If he allows one or more to slack, expecting the other climbers to make up the difference, he hurts the team’s performance and morale.  Each climber in the system has a personal responsibilities and a responsibilities to the team to ensure the team achieves its objectives.  In the same way, all organizations require personal and team responsibilities in order to achieve their goals. The ropes are the visual representation of the interconnectedness of each climber, magnifying the need for teamwork within the system for everyone to scale to the top, but even without the physical ropes, in most human systems, the connections are just as binding.  Each person in a community needs to understand the systematic mindset as their actions will affect the others in the interdependent communities.  Every leader, like the cliff climbing leader, must learn to think systematically in order to lead to his full potential, understanding how individual parts influence one another within the entity as a whole. Both nature and organizations are filled with systems.  Nature is filled with ecosystems involving air, water, plants, animals and more in systems to sustain life, while organizational systems consist of people, structures, and processes that interact to produce results.  Whether the results are good or bad depends mainly upon the system interactions orchestrated by the leader.

Stephen Covey, one of the best system thinkers, provides another classic example of systems. He tells a story of a fishermen going to a river to enjoy a day of fishing, but just minutes after getting there, he sees a young boy flailing his arms in the middle of the river, screaming for help. The fishermen quickly jumps in and saves the young boy.  The boy is disheveled, but otherwise fine. The fishermen starts fishing again, but fifteen minutes later, a young girl is flailing her arms, yelling for help, in the middle of the river.  The fishermen saves her also.  At this point, he wonders what the odds are, that two children would need help on the same day, on the same river.  Fifteen minutes later, when a third child needs to be rescued, he is certain that there must be more to the picture (system), than the isolated events that he is experiencing.  At this point, he starts asking questions, no longer believing that the children who needed rescuing, are isolated “cause and effect” events.  He believes there is more to this system than is meeting his eyes. The fishermen, in an effort to solve the cause at its roots, not just continue to trim at the leaves, walks the trail upstream, finding a children’s camp on the riverside.  The fishermen soon discovers the cause of the distressed kids. A bully, doing what bullies do, is tossing kids in the river every fifteen minutes, until he ensures that everyone surrenders their lunch money.  The fishermen, a true problem solver, took the bully by the ear, walked him into the camp’s office, solving the root cause of the problem (the bully), and enjoying the remaining fishing time in peace.  Although a simplistic systems loop, how many times are issues solved by pulling “distressed kids” out of the river, not truly addressing the underlying systemic issues? Most people, run from emergency to emergency in life, never stopping to think if the emergencies have an underlying systematic cause.  The simple cyclical system described above included the boys and girls, the bully, the river, and the fishermen downstream.  The fishermen would have had a busy day, if he hadn’t solved the problem at the root cause level.  In the same way, one can stay busy for an entire life, but unless problems are solved at the root cause level, nothing of long-term consequence is accomplished. Think about how many people’s lives would be improved, if they stopped diving into rivers, saving “distressed kids,” and learned the underlying systems thinking to end the madness once and for all.  One can stay busy, but the goal should be to stay productive. Covey’s example teaches, that one can trim the leaves for a lifetime, but if the desire is to eliminate the bad fruit, one must remove the tree. God Bless, Orrin Woodward

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