Systems Thinking: On keeping an open mind and a closed mouth.

Posted on June 8, 2015

When I was told about the joint ‘Systems Thinking and Action Experiment’ workshop with the Clore Leadership Programme, my first thought was that this could have something to do with hypnosis and regression.  To be candid, the ‘pre-Clore Cordelia’ would have needed some convincing to attend but the ‘new Clore-infused Cordelia’ is totally open to new ways of thinking, working, learning and leading. So I jumped right in.

The first thing that caught my attention was when Martin Sandbrook, who led the session, described the systems approach as “beginning when first you see the world through the eyes of another’’. I often describe myself as a pragmatic idealist so this struck a chord with me: I want to change the world in my own small way but I acknowledge that certain compromises need to be made in life as you strive for your ideals.

Systems Thinking acknowledges that we live in a complicated world, awash with uncertainties, chaos and the unexpected. The Systems approach is very different from the mechanistic approach which assumes that we can control events in the world. Systems refers to how interconnected situations are, and highlights the fact that changes in one part of a system will invariably affect the whole. As Martin mentioned this, I thought back to how the 2008 banking crisis had repercussions for all of society.  

Martin was reluctant to define Systems Thinking in stark terms, but being the busybody that I am, I insisted on a loose definition and he was kind enough to give a great one. It struck me that:

  • ‘Systems thinking’ is a way of being;

  • It is an attitude of open-ness; curiosity, compassion and being non-judgemental;

  • It encourages one to consider various perspectives;

  • It encourages one to be aware of one’s beliefs and assumptions,

  • It sees the world as an unfolding process where everything is interrelated;

  • It encourages experiments, letting go of the need to be right, the fear of uncertainty or the illusion of control.

I realised I am used to making decisions based on how these decisions could affect my immediate family and others around me. It now appears I have been taking a systems approach without knowing it. Going forward - in my quest to grow as a leader - I definitely aim to be more conscious of how ‘tinkering’ with one part of a system - e.g. making just one department or team more efficient - could create an imbalance in the system as a whole.

During the session, we got to meet Clore Fellows from the creative and cultural sectors. By way of introduction we were asked to bring an artifact which meant something to us, so we could use this to communicate our assumptions, beliefs and what we value in the world. Heavy stuff! I decided to take one of my favourite necklaces. It was really interesting to gain an insight into the lives of others and I was struck by how deceptively inconsequential objects could be so laden with meaning.

It reminded me of that beautiful quote from the Dalai Lama: ‘When you Talk, you are only Repeating what you know; but when you Listen, you may Learn something new’. I am constantly amazed by how much one can learn if one keeps an open mind – in tandem with a closed mouth.

Martin then introduced us to the basics of ‘Action Experiment’ which is a way of applying the Systems approach to a practical issue. Action experiment involves several steps which encourage us to try out different ways of doing things to see what effect this has.

  • Framing:  Defining the issue, its importance, relevance and context;

  • Aspiration:  One’s aspiration in relation to what has been framed;

  • Reflection:  Reflecting on the issue, Identifying the main question and issues arising;

  • Moving from question to action:  Giving some shape to the question. One helpful hint was to try saying “How do I act in the world, if I say I am….” ;

  • Act in the world;

  • Notice: The effect on you, others and the ‘system’;

  • Recording your noticing:  both inner - what happens inside you, and outer -what happens outside you;

  • Begin another cycle; and continue as need.

Working in groups of three, we didn’t get a chance to ‘act’ but it was a useful process to for us to each explore a pertinent issue.

My issue was around the choice I now face with regards to remaining freelance or taking on a new job role. I  didn’t leave with a clear answer as to which choice to go for but I did leave with more clarity after crafting my ‘Action question’ -  ‘How do I act if I say my work is impacting positively on  the lives of young people and women while ensuring my own children are still cared for properly?’  Making the choice seems easier now I am reminded about my priorities and that ‘All life is an experiment’- Ralph Waldo Emerson.

We ended the day on the rooftop of the pub. With the sun out and a mojito in my hand, I felt blessed to be in the company of passionate, intelligent and compassionate people who all wanted to make a difference to the world we lived in. Striking up conversations, we soon found common ground and shared stories that tickled and stimulated thought in equal measures.

As my sons would say – It was epic!


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Cordelia Osewa-Ediae

Cordelia Osewa-Ediae

Strategy Consultant and Programme Director

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