Systems thinking by the SchwinnsGuest post by Carole and David Schwinn.

Do you wonder where this world is headed? Do you sometimes sigh or lose courage about the flood of negative world news? Or just the course of your current corporation? Don’t lose hope. Focusing on your energy through a reflective practice, as well as focusing on the larger system that you are part of, will help you contribute in a positive way. Last but not least, we share some inspiring role models of leaders who started to care about the whole.

russel-ackoff-systems-thinkingRecently, we had the pleasure of watching once again a brief lecture by the late Dr. Russell Ackoff, one of our mentors, in which he made five points about systems thinking that are particularly relevant for those who lead in a world threatened by a global system of terrorism:

  • The defining properties of any system are defining properties of the whole, which none of its parts have.
  • A system is not the sum of the behaviors of its parts: it’s the product of their interactions.
  • Interventions aimed at separate parts of the system will not change the performance of the whole.
  • When you get rid of something you don’t want, you don’t necessarily get something you do want. Your efforts must be directed at what you do want, not at what you don’t want.
  • Doing the wrong thing right is not nearly as good as doing the right thing wrong.

One intervention isn’t enough

Current and aspiring leaders at the national level are either completely unaware of the points that Dr. Ackoff made, or they believe that the public lacks the capacity for understanding the complex nature of terrorism and other global threats. In either case, their rhetoric and actions appear to be based on a belief that targeting a vigorous intervention at a single element of the problem (e.g., increased bombing of an ISIS stronghold, toppling another tyrant or closing our borders to Muslims) holds promise for eradicating the threat.

A journey from Selfness, Otherness to Wholeness Click To Tweet

The tone of the current political debate appears to be aimed at winning the argument about which element to target and what intervention to make. In the meantime, the dynamic and interrelated elements in our interconnected global threats (e.g., terrorism, poverty, corruption, environmental degradation, lack of education, fundamentalist values, tribalism, and massive migration, to name just a few) continue to flourish.

Opening up to embrace the whole system

transformative-workplaceWhat is needed, of course, is a global shift in consciousness toward “embracing the whole”, a point we make in our recent book, The Transformative Workplace: Growing People, Purpose, Prosperity, and Peace. In the book, we describe a pathway from Selfness to Otherness to Wholeness, which developmental psychologist, Susanne Cook-Greuter likens to climbing a mountain “to gain an increasingly higher vantage point.”

“At each turn of the path up the mountain, I can see more of the territory I have already traversed. I can see the multiple turns and reversals in the path. I can see further into and across the valley. The closer I get to the summit, the easier it becomes to see behind to the shadow side and uncover formerly hidden aspects of the territory. Finally at the top, I can see beyond my particular mountain to other ranges and further horizons. The more I can see, the wiser, more timely, more systematic and informed my actions and decisions are likely to be because more of the relevant information, connections, and dynamic relationships become visible.”

We need to address the complexity of the problems we face Click To Tweet

Traversing the path toward higher levels of consciousness requires that leaders have the courage to recognize that our current approaches to solving the problems we face are not working; to challenge the lenses through which they are seeing the world; to open themselves to broader perspectives and more holistic solutions; to risk taking new approaches and learning from their experience; and, to adopt more expansive and inclusive ways of seeing the world.

Positive role models embracing the whole

This is an extremely tall order, but there are leaders in our midst who can serve as role models and guides along the path to embracing wholeness. In our book, we point to Ford Motor Company’s Bill Ford, who envisions a sustainable mobility future that solves real problems for people everywhere. We look at the Aetna Insurance Company’s CEO, Mark Bertolini, whose life experiences led him to rethink the meaning of well-being in his own life and the lives of those he serves. And there’s the late Ray Anderson, founder and CEO of carpet maker Interface, whose own eureka moment upon reading Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce, led him to transform Interface into one of the most ecologically responsible companies in the world.

systems transformation by M.C. EscherIt is instructive to note that each of these leaders and many others we write and know about have two things in common; first, each had experiences that led them to challenge their deeply held beliefs and assumptions; and second, each is committed to some form of spiritual or mindfulness practice that connects them more deeply to themselves and to the larger systems of which they are a part. Adopting some sort of regular reflective practice – be it meditation, yoga, gardening, hiking, or simply pausing to breathe deeply at regular intervals – appears to be the “must do” step for those who would aspire to develop the capacity for understanding the complex and interconnected nature of the problems we face at every level of society.

Adopting a reflective practice helps to see the whole Click To Tweet

Leaders, and ordinary people, with this capacity for embracing wholeness, are desperately needed throughout our society and the world. Our organizations need people who are fully capable of facing the challenges of a dynamic and uncertain global economy. Our communities need people who can actively participate in strengthening educational, social and economic institutions in the places they live. Societies need people who can understand and address the urgency and complexity of the problems we face. And, last but not least, the world needs people whose wisdom and insight give them the capacity for bringing about a world of peace and prosperity for this and future generations.

Watch Dr. Ackoff’s lecture here.
Read Susanne Cook-Grueter’s “Making the Case for a Developmental Perspective” here.
Read the introduction and excerpts from The Transformative Workplace at

Reflection questions

  • How do you help yourself to see the larger system of which you are part?
  • Do you practice a reflective approach? If not, how could you build some conscious reflection into your daily life? (The results may amaze you…)

Partners in life and work for over thirty years, Carole and David Schwinn share a passion for creating contexts in which every one of us can fulfill our unique purpose and potential on earth. They visited 13 countries in search of leaders who pay as much attention to the development of their people as they do to their bottom line. They share their stories and research in their book, The Transformative Workplace: Growing People, Purpose, Prosperity, and Peace.

Illustration by M.C. Escher

Marcella Bremer is an author and culture & change consultant. She co-founded this Leadership & Change Blog and OCAI online.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Saira Khan

    Kudos to Carole and David Schwinn for writing a piece that is deeply thought provoking. Thank you for yet another great post Marcella!

  2. I appreciate the positive and hopeful tone of this piece. I encountered it at just the right time. Our world is in need of systems thinkers with positive solutions. Thank you for your contribution to the literature.

    1. Marcella Bremer

      I’m so glad to hear that, Gloria! Positivity is vital if we want to contribute to the workplace and the world – and we can all use some encouragement now and then.

  3. William J 'Bill' LeGray

    Hi Marcella; I appreciate your guest post. Setting aside for the moment the elections fury, this IS an ongoing question which begs to forever be foremost in our thinking.
    Underlying the learnings is the fact that Human Processes are also systematic but not as “regular and as repetitive” in actions- as are the operational OR systems assumed. And, within our Social systems, which are inspired more by emotions, unexpected changes can be aroused or evaporate almost instantly. For health and welfare, and our life and living, we need to be constantly straddling “both” systems and partial thinking. And always be mindful that the “devils” can be in the details, as well as “missing the elephants” walking by.

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