With so much written about systems thinking in management and leadership over the last twenty years or so, people may feel that this principle is bordering on the cliché. “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts” is now almost a truism, and certainly the language of systemic thinking has been increasingly and uncontroversially used in discussions of Organisational Development, in certain views on Leadership, and in one guise or another in operations and production management for at least two decades, if not more.
I would argue, though, that this apparent application has been more one of vocabulary than of fundamental principles. What’s more, the appetite for the topic of complexity has frequently been faddish, second-hand and poorly thought-through; a handy bandwagon for those with a book to sell, a seminar to fill or a paper to publish. This is not a rant; it has always been so and probably (sadly) always will be. So let me explain how I think that a systemic view is essential to the nature of Reflection, Personal Development and for management practice, and in doing so argue that this is still a fairly radical, exciting idea.
Thus, the fourth PD principle, and one which (I trust) follows logically from the first three, is “Practice Awareness of the whole, not the parts.”
Since the 1980s, the predominant interpretation of reflective learning in management has been via an analytic approach, of what many would call ’the scientific method’ of measuring cause and effect, just redressed in the clothes of humanism. This is not new, nor is it always the useless thing to do. It is, in fact, the defining pattern of thought from Renaissance times to the present day, a process characterised by Russell Ackoff as a three step process of analysis;
1) take it apart,
2) try to understand what the parts do, and
3) assemble understanding of the parts into an understanding of the whole.
In modern business education it is the same – management is broken down into its parts because the assumption is that knowledge of the parts taken separately allows integration into an understanding of the whole. Analysis permeates corporations, which are divided into parts, which are then aggregated into the running of the whole – an analytical process. Business Schools also have curricula separated into parts, which vie with one another in silos of analysis, which occasionally leads to academics vigorously defending the grounds for their view, their models and their theories entirely in relation to the views, models and theories of other competing domains. People, too, are units for and of analysis. Their personalities, traits and characteristics can be measured, their roles assessed and their actions studied in isolation to see how they work.
By contrast, in systems thinking every system is contained in and defined by its function in a larger system. Explanations always lie outside the system, never inside it. Where analysis takes you inside the system, synthetic thinking contrasts the three analytical steps by:
1) asking “what is this a part of?”,
2) then explaining the behaviour of the containing whole, and finally
3) disaggregating understanding of the containing whole by explaining the role or function of what I’m trying to explain.
We tend to think of ourselves as individuals, more or less free agents operating more or less effectively, making conscious choices alongside others who are (more or less) in a similar situation of individual free-will and choice. In Personal Development, a systemic approach means setting aside, at least temporarily, certain parts of our training, thinking, or education. Where problems just seem to be repeating themselves, or a more piecemeal approach to change doesn’t resolve things, or the issue just isn’t clear, seeing PD from a systemic point of view can very liberating, with surprisingly rapid insights and results.
Elsewhere in this blog I have posted about systemic coaching, and I have come to the conclusion the basic principles underlying this approach work equally well when applied to Personal and Professional systems. This is easy to say and difficult to talk about since the dynamics that work within a system are best understood when experienced (phenomenologically) yourself. The invisible ordering forces of a system or whole which are listed below (and the descriptors) are taken from John Whittington’s excellent new book on Systemic Coaching & Constellations:
Acknowledgement (this is the first principle of PD in my list, and here refers to “standing in the truth of the current situation”)
Time (“what comes first has a natural precedence over what follows”)
Place (“everyone, and everything, has a right to a different but unique ad respected place in the system”)
Exchange (“a dynamic balance of giving and receiving is required in systems”)