“Your primary influence is the environment you create.” – Peter Senge
Over the past few years, the pandemic has taught us many things and most certainly brought systems interconnectedness to the forefront of human experience. Many of the systems that sustain us and our organizations were working so seamlessly before the pandemic that we hardly knew they existed. Since the start of the pandemic, it is safe to say, we have all experienced system interruptions and in some cases breakdowns that have impacted our work and our day-to-day life.
As 2022 dawns, Systems Thinking is fundamental for leaders in building a different kind of year than those of our recent past. It provides a holistic approach to better understanding how the system elements interact with each other, root causes of defects, and the right approach for finding strong leverage areas for effective problem-solving.
Whenever I think about whole systems, Peter Senge’s book, The Fifth Discipline, comes to mind and transports me back to graduate school and the first time I heard Peter Senge speak at the National Organization Development Conference.
Dr. Senge is now a household name in organizational development and leadership, but what I remember most about the first time I saw him, was his commitment to enhancing the capacity of all people to work productively toward a common goal. He didn’t focus just on leaders or middle managers, or even companies. His focus was, and still is, the whole system, for which we are all a part.
We Live in an Interdependent World
And never have our interdependencies been more obvious than the past few years. The four things that stand out for me in Senge’s book, which explains the complex subject of systems intelligence, are:
- We are all participants in various webs of interdependence.
- We have to take a systems approach to understand how the most vexing problems come about before we can maximize non-obvious leverage points toward a solution.
- We have to find different vantage points from which to view issues that arise.
- It takes time to develop, adopt, and apply solutions that require a healthy balance of short- and long-term gains.
The most poignant reflection for me is that at the center of all healthy systems are people who have a deep and persistent commitment to real learning. It may sound obvious, but it is actually a revolutionary view of systems intelligence because it suggests a learning orientation versus relying on the more traditional definitions of “smart.”
I have written extensively about self-awareness as the foundation for emotional intelligence. What Peter Senge’s work brought to light for me recently is that emotionally intelligent people are able to contribute collectively to a learning organization and therefore have the capacity to create intelligent systems. I find it fascinating how Senge talks about autopoiesis when dissecting living systems. The term autopoiesis refers to a system capable of producing and maintaining itself by creating its own parts.
What matters most about this for us as individuals and leaders in organizations is the fact that inherent in autopoietic systems is the capacity for renewal. There is no better time to focus on renewal than at the beginning of a burgeoning year.
How can I contribute to intelligent systems day to day, at home, work, and in my community? Peter Senge describes four disciplines:
Commit to learning mode. While competence, skills, and knowledge are all part of mastery, this practice is not about dominance but about growth. As Senge states,
“Organizations learn only through individuals who learn. Individual learning does not guarantee organizational learning. But without it no organizational learning occurs.”
This is the work of turning the mirror inward and flexing the self-awareness muscle. As Senge states,
“Moving the organization in the right direction entails working to transcend the sorts of internal politics and game playing that dominate traditional organizations. In other words, it means fostering openness.”
Building a Shared Vision
This is something that is so commonly misunderstood as a shared vision can’t be dictated in an intelligent system. It has to be constructed in a way that galvanizes the system (organization, family, team) at all levels. As Senge states,
“The practice of shared vision involves the skills of unearthing shared ‘pictures of the future’ that foster genuine commitment and enrollment rather than compliance. In mastering this discipline, leaders learn the counter-productiveness of trying to dictate a vision, no matter how heartfelt.”
This is perhaps where the magic happens. When two or more people come together and have a persistent commitment to real learning, watch out! As Senge states,
“Dialogue is the capacity of members of a team to suspend assumptions and enter into a genuine ‘thinking together’. To the Greeks, dia-logos meant a free-flowing of meaning through a group, allowing the group to discover insights not attainable individually…. [It] also involves learning how to recognize the patterns of interaction in teams that undermine learning.”
As 2022 begins, I appreciate what I have learned from the chaos of the past few years, as it has led to a renewed deep, and persistent commitment to real learning.
It is a choice we make every day, with each new bend and curve. The New Year is a powerful time for renewal. I leave you with the words of Albert Einstein as you reflect on how you will frame your contributions in 2022 …
“A hundred times a day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depend on the labors of others, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the measure as I have received and am still receiving.”