Systems Thinking

‘Systems thinking’ is a term coined by Peter Senge in his book “The Fifth Discipline”

Would you be shocked to hear that Buddhist meditation teachers are teaching from a book for business leaders?

Peter Senge is actually a Buddhist practitioner himself, and brought that background to his book “The Fifth Dicipline” which covers topics such as personal mastery, personal vision, creative and emotional tension, systems thinking, various approaches to communication, and shared vision.

To one extreme, the term “business” can be associated with power-hungry, greedy individuals who take advantage of the working class for their own profit.

“The Fifth Discipline” shows that business, like anything else, is an opportunity for awakefulness. And there is also the opportunity to positively shift the world through business, particularly when you have a business working with wholesome means for a wholesome end. See Whole Livelihood for more information.

In systems thinking, you are becoming aware of the structures and processes that make your business function. Like in your own self, when you are not aware of a thought pattern, a feeling, or a sensation in the body, it leads to a mindless, habitual state. Mindfulness can likewise be practiced in a business where you become aware of the systems that make it function, and can alter them to get the results that you want.

Think of the 8 Fold Path. It is a system. And like all systems, it has individual parts that share a responsibility for the whole picture. If someone is spiritually struggling, they can look at the 8 Fold Path and see where they have more work to do.

You don’t end up with a perfect system over night. If a system isn’t working, or you aren’t getting the results you want, you need to be willing to change, and then take an honest look at what is limiting your, or your business’s growth (because systems thinking is not just about business!).

When you are coming from a system’s-thinking approach, it is actually easier to make improvements to the system, and you are more successful at solving problems. This is because systems-thinkers come from a bigger perspective, so they are more likely to:

  • open-source for feedback
  • get teams involved in the process
  • look at themselves for how they contribute to the problem
  • get less stuck in personal defensiveness, preferences, or limitations

We all have probably spent too much time thinking about ‘smart individuals.’ That’s one of the problems with schools. They are very individualistic, very much about ‘the smart kids and the dumb kids.’ That’s not the kind of smartness we need.

The smartness we need is collective. We need cities that work differently. We need industrial sectors that work differently. We need value change and supply change that are managed from the beginning until the end to purely produce social, ecological and economic well-being. That is the concept of intelligence we need, and it will never be achieved by a handful of smart individuals.

It’s not about ‘the smartest guys in the room.’ It’s about what we can do collectively. So the intelligence that matters is collective intelligence, and that’s the concept of ‘smart’ that I think will really tell the tale. – Peter Senge, quoted on Mutual

downloadPractice 1: Step back

When you are stuck nose-deep in a problem, step back and ask yourself:

  1. What is the immediate problem here? This is usually the result of a larger problem, or the side effect of a larger problem. What symptoms are you seeing that there is a problem?
  2. Try open-ended dialoging with others involved in the problem. Do not try to solve the problem, but express their different perspectives of what they are seeing, what the problem is.
  3. Ask yourselves: what do we know for sure, and what is still just speculation?

downloadPractice 2: Identify the systemic problem

Now ask yourself what is the actual problem underlying the symptom? It can be sometimes small sometimes, or something larger? What system is missing that would solve this problem?



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