7 reasons you shouldn’t touch systems thinking

This is an old post, but if you’re going to read one of my posts read this one, especially if you’re new to systems thinking and it sounds interesting .  It’s not necessarily a warning, but it seems to be a common experience, as it’s by far the most read of any of anything else I’ve typed , with ten times more views than the second most read post and seemed to strike a chord with a lot of people, which is why I’ve promoted it to the front page.  


It’s not all cream cakes and beer in systems thinking. 

Here’s seven things you’ll have to put up with if you start getting curious and learning.

  1. You’ll still work in command-and-control land. Everything around you won’t have changed but you will have. This causes a huge disconnect. You’ve just joined another organisation-the real one.
  2. No-one else will understand what you are on about. At all. Give up talking about work, other people will be using a different mental model to you, you will have different frames of reference, different vocabulary, different assumptions and different conclusions.
  3. Performance reviews will be impossible. You’ve learned that about 95% of performance is down to the system you are in and not you. Try and talk usefully in a performance review now, go on. If you know what to say and what not, please tell me in the comments below as I don’t have a clue. Performance reviews will still go on, and you will still be in them.
  4. KPIs, unit costs, benchmarking, targets, robust project plans, key priorities, strategic priorities, key strategic priorities.  All of this will still be around you and you will have to pretend they exist, like unicorns or Santa Claus. Good luck!
  5. Are you a leader? If so, keep at it! Leadership is exactly about this. Shaping purpose, principles and facilitating method. If not, then you’re pushing a snowball uphill with your nose.
  6. “oh, we tried that last year”
  7. Genuine unhappiness.  You might be dis-satisfiedwith the way things are, you may know that ISO/Lean/6 sigma/whatever is a pile of crap. But knowing WHY it is a pile of crap and how it could be made better, and not being able to effect that change…that is the thing that will make you properly unhappy. Genuinely and for the foreseeable.

But you don’t have any choice. Curiosity is it’s own master.

14 Responses to 7 reasons you shouldn’t touch systems thinking

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  3. “If you know what to say and what not, please tell me in the comments below as I don’t have a clue.”

    I’d review what they did to improve the performance of the system, not just their own performance.

  4. hmmm…. can’t tell if this is serious or not? I think i need to read the rest of your blog to be sure :) It reads to me like if we can’t make it perfect its not worth the effort? I prefer to realize that I can’t effect total and immediate change but strive to make small incremental, evolutionary changes where I can and try to evangelize (for the lack of a better word) the reasons we need system change.

    • ThinkPurpose says:

      It is both serious AND not.

      There’s a book called “so far from home” by Margaret Wheatley where this is from:
      “The world does not change ‘one person at a time’. I’d like to abolish that phrase-now applied to just about everything-because it misrepresents how change happens. To understand emergence we need to shift our attention from the one-at-a-time to the whole, to the varying dynamics and influences that are clearly visible IN individuals but do not ORIGINATE in individuals”
      Not sure EXACTLY how this relates to your comment but it’s cool, yes?

  5. auremontano says:

    Wow, your descriptions fit exactly what happened to my role a couple of weeks ago, when after 5 months of intense systemic modeling of the companies current state, the owners cornered me asking what have I done up to this moment. I didn´t panic but suffered a momentary lapse of reason (as so many processes where interconnected in my model, I just couldnt simply bear a linear answer). Since that lapse, I turned to a project management modeler that allows me to maintain my current mental model while providing task breakdowns for the linear thinking hungry.

  6. Steve says:

    Hi there I was passed this today by a work collegue with a statement “I seen this and thought of you”, can I say my nose is just thawing out and the snowball is moving eaver so slowly. I can relate to every word above, but still remain positive that one day the penny will drop, now I have accessed this blog I will continue to keep in touch, keep up the good work.

  7. Mike says:

    Quite right. The only countermeasure might be to abandon the system and make your own.

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  10. peter says:

    I saw a lovely poster in a shop yesterday that is only vaguely relevant to this post:
    “There’s no point sitting around waiting for the rain to end before doing anything. Learn to dance in the rain”

  11. Robert Wootton says:

    POSIWID is an acronym coined by the late Stafford Beer. He warned all the UK political leaders about the then forthcoming political and economic collapse in 1975. He was disparaged as a prophet of doom. He even wrote a book “Platform for Change” which I read at the time. So in one sense you are right. No one believed or understood what he was on about. This is because most politicians and economists see their world with, metaphorically, an earth centric flat earth perspective and not a metaphorically, heliocentric perspective.
    I am trying to change that perspective myself. My wordpress blog is POSIWID!

  12. Peter says:

    Just love this stuff…

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