Systems Leadership Project: What is Systems Thinking?

Systems Leadership Project: What is Systems Thinking?

Well, Studio [Y] has formally come to a close, and I guess that means it’s time to start revisiting this little notebook of mine…

To the beginning then!

The very first title, on the 10th of September, is “Introduction to Systems Thinking”, which I do find amusing because I don’t think I even still truly understand “Systems Thinking” in the way some clearly do, but I didn’t even sort of get it until a few months back…

We begin with the investigation of motivation; both in terms of self and in terms of the people around you. What makes people tick, so to speak, and how can that be consciously utilized?

People are driven, in most cases at least, by some basic purpose; and in my notes, these are broken down into two aspects:

A personal touchstone or story.

Think personal motivations based on past hardships or inspiring figures in their life.

A personal justification.

This is essentially the method of grounding your story. It’s your lived experience or perhaps there’s hard data and statistics to support you. This is what self-justifies your purpose. It’s crucial to note here that this justification doesn’t have to be based on scientific fact, though ideally, it is…. Just so long as it’s a justification that works for you…. If justification could only ever be based on science I feel like we’d have a lot fewer issues in our current society.

We then explored a method of trying to identify that basic purpose. One such methodology was titled simply “The Nine Whys” and consisted of first asking a simple question, so like “Why do you do _____?” and following up every answer with an additional Why based question. We were admittedly warned that this can be extremely annoying, and it was awkward in practice but undeniably effective. I wound up having a strangely revealing conversation with people who were at the time, basically total strangers.


This “Introduction to Systems Thinking” still made very little sense to me at the time. Looking back I can see it as an exercise that highlighted two of the key areas of Studio [Y].

1) Be totally cool in discomfort. You WILL have uncomfortable conversations and you WILL have to open up to people you don’t know. Most embraced it and the awkwardness subsided pretty quick, leaving some very tight friendships for only an 8 month period.

2) There’s ALWAYS a root. Don’t let surface symptoms or actions be the end of your investigation, there’s always something behind it, and identifying what that is will make you notably more effective. This goes from problems (we’ll get into that later) to people (very quickly summarized above).

That said people don’t seem to much like sharing their deeper purpose.

Unsurprising I suppose. I’m still practicing at figuring out how to identify it with people who aren’t in Studio [Y] and thus aren’t quite prepared for deep conversations with strangers. Disguised versions of the Nine Whys methodology seems to work well, but only in one-on-one conversations that already require a degree of familiarity.

Next up, Introduction to Systems Thinking Part Two: Design Thinking.


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