#2: Varieties of thinking

On different ways of seeing and rules of engagement.

I’m Luke Craven; this is another of my weekly explorations of how systems thinking and complexity can be used to drive real, transformative change in the public sector and beyond. The first issue explains what the newsletter is about; you can see all the issues here.


Hello there, reader,

tl;dr: Systemic and non-systemic thinking are both useful, though often contradictory, ways of seeing the world. We need rules of engagement to help us more critically engage with both styles of thought.

People often assume that I never engage in non-systemic thinking. They think that as “that systems thinking guy” I must spend all my days thinking big, admiring connections in the world around me, unbothered by the detail of individual parts. This is common assumption, but it is misplaced in two critical ways:

  1. It fails to properly appreciate what non-systemic thinking is by conflating it with taking a narrow focus on particular parts of the system, and;

  2. It misunderstands the relationship between systemic and non-systemic thinking and the role that both can play in making sense of complexity.


What is non-systemic thinking?

Words matter. They shape our experience of complexity and how we articulate it to others. Imprecise and blunt tools, their limitations are part of what makes them exciting. I’ve been fascinated for a long time by the link between language and complexity. I’ve written before about how language can reinforce linear thinking and skew our understanding of change in complex systems. This fascination drives some strange obsessions. Every time I pick up a new dictionary or thesaurus, for example, I can’t help but flip it open to the words systemic and non-systemic. I’m curious about how people attempt to define these different ways of thinking about the world.

What I have learnt is that it is very, very hard to neatly capture what “non-systemic” means in practical terms. Attempts most often reach for things like specific, local, and not systemic. Most of these definitions are intensely problematic. They conjure up an image of non-systemic thinking as engaging with the world at a granular, specific, or local level of detail. They rely on metaphors of depth and breadth. They make us think we must zoom in for the detail and zoom out for a helicopter view. While these metaphors can help us see a system in different ways, they also lead to the assumption that non-systemic thinking is the same detailed analysis.

This is a pervasive assumption. Time and again, I hear people say that while zoomed in on a particular part of a problem and analysing it in depth, they are seeing the world in a non-systemic way. That they only engage systems thinking for “that big picture stuff”. But it doesn’t quite work that way. The process of zooming in and out is a tacit application of a systemic mindset. It implies that the world is a set of complex relationships between parts and wholes that can only be properly understood from multiple points of view. True non-systemic thinking is quite different. As I’ve previously written, it involves thinking in LAMO ways, which see the world and its dynamics as Linear, Anthropocentric, Mechanistic and Ordered; prioritise the analysis of parts in isolation from the whole; and assume the possibility of full knowledge and control. It is not just a descriptor for a particular level of zoom.

…and how is it related to systems thinking?

The recognition that systemic and non-systemic thinking are quite different challenges conventional views of the role each can play in how we make sense of complexity. My view is that sometimes it is useful to take a systemic view of the world and sometimes it is useful to think about it as non-systemic. Both can be informative in particular circumstances, but they make sense of the world in fundamentally different ways.

For example, in large organisations projects are often managed by assigning responsibility for realising specific outcomes to particular individuals. The rationale given is that single-point accountability is one of the most important preconditions for getting stuff done. This is a non-systemic view of the organisation that is premised on assumptions of linear causation (“Eli did X, and so Y occurred”) and full knowledge (“… and we can be sure it was X that made it happen.”). The alternative view is that organisations should be seen as a system of mutually interacting activities with emergent outcomes, which cannot be easily attributed back to the activities of particular individuals. If outcomes are emergent, they cannot be used to hold people to account for the impact or quality of particular tasks. Both of these views have strong adherents; the application of both has seen organisations achieve and sustain high performance; but it would appear contradictory to apply both concurrently in a single organisation.

This is the central paradox of complexity: that you have to view things in both systemic and non-systemic ways to do them justice. These different ways can each have desirable impacts and can each teach us a great deal about the way things work, but they may reveal contradictory properties in the object being observed. They correspond to different aspects of reality, which do not yield to a single description. To do full justice to complexity, you have to take them both into account.

Making sense of multitudes

Precisely how should we take both into account? How can we use different ways of thinking to understand the world if they appear contradictory? My view is that there is common ground to be found in a set of “rules of engagement” to help bridge the divide. A commitment to these rules is the first step in preparing each other to make better sense of complexity:

  1. Stretching from the norm: Let me be clear, I think the world needs more systems thinking. It is not our default setting. We need to challenge ourselves to engage systemic modes of thought more commonly and more widely. Take the organisational example above: proponents of a non-systemic view of the organisation could learn a lot from challenging their assumptions about control, causation and outcome-based performance measures. But until they let go of these assumptions altogether they will be unable to meaningfully apply systemic ways of structuring their organisation. Their non-systemic assumptions are not wrong per se, just a fundamentally different way of making sense of and responding to complexity.

  2. Being open: Our world is a polarised collection of echo chambers; where proponents of different varieties of thinking are certain they are right, while others are wrong. It is no surprise that the same dynamics emerge in the systems thinking versus “everything else” debate. This does nobody any good. We need more openness in how we engage across these different perspectives and to be more willing to expose our uncertainties without fear of immediate rejection. By openness I don’t mean an uncritical acceptance of other approaches, nor do I mean tolerance without sincere engagement. Instead, openness is a commitment to being willing to revise or transform ourselves and our views when they collide with those of others. Committing to openness is a core part of the inner work of systems practice and that should include reflections about the limits of taking a singular systemic perspective.

  3. Judging on consequences: Accepting ambiguity and incompleteness in different sense making frameworks means that we need to judge different positions on their consequences rather than on their content. Think again about the two views of the organisation. The consequences of a non-systemic view have been shown to encourage gaming behaviour, while a systemic view can result in unclear pathways of communication and chaotic decision making. Each reveals something different about complexity and how we can meaningfully make sense of it. Each one can be very useful in certain applications. We can learn a lot from thinking and talking critically about their respective consequences. They may conflict if we try to apply them both at once, but that’s fine. We can apply them one at a time and try to appreciate both.

Put simply, we don’t have to agree on how we see the world to agree that there are range of credible beliefs about how best to respond to its complexity. It is often said that systems thinking requires humility—a recognition that it is impossible to come to fully know a system or understand its dynamics. But that humility should equally drive an acceptance that systems thinking might not always be the most appropriate answer to a complex question. It is possible, productive and generative to see the world in different ways.


By the way: This newsletter is hard to categorise and probably not for everyone—but if you know unconventional thinkers who might enjoy it, please share it with them.

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Find me elsewhere on the web at www.lukecraven.com, on Twitter @LukeCraven, on LinkedIn here, or by email at <luke.k.craven@gmail.com>.