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.

32 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?

      Liked by 1 person

    • CommonFrog says:

      Evangelize is exactly the right word!! My Local Authority Employer has fully embraced the ‘Vanguard Method’ and your either a believer or a non- believer in their eyes. We have a whole department and management tier who preach the virtues of ‘systems thinking’ yet will not acknowledge its limitations. If you dare question its use in anyway you are seen as ‘disruptive’ or ‘not open to change’ an unbeliever!!!
      I have found the exercise all rather decisive and time consuming for arguably little change at the end. The problem will be that the Vanguard or System Thinking will no doubt fall out of favour and a different management system will replace it……..and will be all be changing again, coming full circle.


      • ThinkPurpose says:

        Thanks for that. If you want, and I’d definitely be interested, send more to me anonymously through the “contact me” button at the top of the blog, under the onions. Cos I’m always interested in things like this.


  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…


  13. Simon says:

    A thought provoking list! I think I may have to write an article in reply to this one 🙂


  14. Yuvaan says:

    Your Point 1: “Everything around you won’t have changed but you will have.”. There’s irony in complaining that individuals can’t see your point of view about Systems Thinking making sense. In trying to educate people and bring change, you appear to be ignoring what you know about Systems Thinking.


  15. I train schools in systems thinking…changes lives and that is what matters. Keep your blogs coming thick and fast.


  16. Jim says:

    I will quote Emma Watson “if not you, who? If not now, when?” The only sentence I can agree with is: But you don’t have any choice. But I guess you do have a choice, you can always stay in bed tomorrow too. It doesn’t have to be a revolution and it shouldn’t be a revolution – this is the mistake that leads to your 7 reasons. I don’t wander through the corridors preaching from the fifth discipline, but my results are better and more sustainable thanks to systems thinking. Be the change you want to see. It all starts with you my friend. But don’t try to bend the spoon – that’s impossible.


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  19. Paul Taylor says:

    Its an uphill climb in my experience. The incessant desire to ask why? And to get an answer is part of thd human condition.


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  23. Bob Ainsworth says:

    Number 3 just came up. I spent many an hour ignoring my ‘PDR’ and then just staring at it. SMART came up and my arse started twitching.

    Not time was given to do it and be off the phones. I was told to do it in my own time like everyone else.

    Erm, no. My own time is for me not for work. Do it in your lunch break. Again, no. I have 30 minutes to shovel down food 10 of those are queuing to get lunch.

    My boss relented and gave me 30 minutes to type up what I had done in a year.

    Payrise isn’t looking good.


    • ThinkPurpose says:

      Oh dear. poor bob.
      Theres no winning with IPR or PDRs is there?
      i have no idea what to do with them. ive tried THE LOT. ignoring them, arguing, just going with the flow. Pretending i was agreeing. none of it worked. the only thing is THEY WILL END. ie they’ll only last a defined amount of time then they stop for another 6 months


  24. Benjamin Ford says:

    do what everyone else does with annual reviews
    1 – argue like billy oh about the level of outcome required to minimise what you have to do
    2 – add in some objectives that cover the things you want to do to satisfy your goals / curiosity
    3 – ignore them as much as possible because no-one gets promoted because of their annual reviews and if anyone could really foresee what needed to be done a year in advance then the business would probably be in much better shape

    and yes, i can identify with all this – although I changed while working in a business where this way of thinking was normal, it was a shock to meet all the worlds linearists when I went to work elsewhere…


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