The Third Key: Systems Thinking

“The idea is to pay attention to the living world as if it were a spider’s web: when you touch one part, the whole web responds.”- Robin Wall Kimmerer, Interviewed by The Sun Magazine

While many of us understand intellectually that we are, of course, part of an interconnected web, the dominant approach to teaching and learning focuses on objectifying and separating out parts and individuals in the ongoing effort to find what is core or essential.

“Whereas the scientific method (summarised by Popper as the three Rs: reduction, repeatability and refutation) increases our knowledge and understanding by breaking things down into their constituent parts and exploring the properties of these parts, systems thinking explores the properties which exist once the parts have been combined into a whole.” From, Briefing Paper One: Systems thinking

The article is an excellent introduction to systems thinking. As indicated by the quote, systems thinking provides something a purely analytical approach cannot: it allows us to discover the properties that arise from the relationship between the parts of a system.

Ironically, that line also captures the intellectual flaw of the reductive approach: “…the properties which exist once the parts have been combined into a whole” (emphasis added). The great truth is that the parts never exist on their own

There is no one combining parts into a whole. We may recombine multiple systems in a new way, requiring us to discover the new relationships in the increasingly complex system. However, the ultimate scientific truth is that properties only exist in the context of the whole. We are never not in an interconnected system. We can only truly know something if we know it in relationship to the whole.

What we know of as systems thinking today originated in the 1920s, a response to the reductivist nature of analytical thought. By the 40s and 50s, systems thinkers imagined a future in which analysis and systems thinking would be partnered in all fields of study. In many ways we do live during a flowering of systems thinking, for it is the basis of our digitally networked world. In many other ways, we have failed that vision: nearly all of K-12 education and many institutions of higher education leave out systems thinking and continue to focus almost solely on traditional analytic thought.

I’ve written about systems thinking in this blog before. Read that article, or better yet, read some of my favorite systems thinkers: Russell L. Ackoff, Donella Meadows and Peter Senge. It’s worthwhile to note that systems thinking does not require the kind of empathic intelligence that I teach. Most systems thinkers work almost entirely from an analytic approach, developing complex analytical models of systemic dynamics. However, you can’t access the full capacity of your empathic intelligence if you are not thinking systemically.

Constellating the System

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” – Albert Einstein

Every problem or question is embedded in a system. To use our empathic intelligence to inquire into a problem, we must be able to constellate the system. This is different from systemic modeling, for we are not looking at feedback loops or analyzing relationships at this point.  Constellating a system is a spatial/visual process in which we are identifying points or nodes in a system.

The Three Fields Model I am offering here is a set of interconnected fields or lenses that allows us to see different layers of the system. There are times when constellating only the first field provides enough meaningful insight just through the visualization of the problem as you know it. However, as the Einstein quote suggests, more often, mapping only what is “known” helps us see the problem but not the solution. It is when we add fields 2 and 3 that we start to shift our perception and reach levels where creative solutions emerge.

I wrote an earlier post that describes the origins and applications of this model in detail. You can find it here.

Three Fields of a Systemic Constellation

Field 1: What is known.

Field 2: Historical Context.

Field 3: Limits, Drivers and/or Resources.

In my next post, I will give an example of how this all comes together with Key 4: Field Testing.

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