This week I have had a couple of major breakthroughs in my quest to introduce systems thinking and practice to others. Whilst I recognise those successes – this post is not about them specifically. I want to reflect on what I am discovering about others and the learning that they value.
The colleagues I am talking about are people who are natural systems thinkers – I listen to them try and articulate their ideas, try and scribble diagrams that demonstrate their models of what they are thinking, use their hands to draw ‘systems’ in the air. They use the word systems and talk of whole systems approaches and systems thinking. I just want to say “stop, listen to me for a few hours and I’ll take this natural talent you have to a whole new level. I want to let you know of some language, ideas and tools that will release this natural talent”. Perhaps this is how it feels to be a sporting coach spotting new talent but seeing that the athlete does not currently have the technique, disposition or awareness of how their body works to take their natural ability to Olympic standard.
I enjoy taking an academic and pro-active approach to learning – I like the rigour that brings, I like the fact that I am exposed to different ideas and methods and I like the way exercises and assignments make sure I try out using those ideas and methods. Of course, in my OU world I come across people who are the same. This way of approaching my learning and personal development is so much part of who I am, I find it hard to understand that others don’t like academic stuff, don’t like theory – to me that is tantamount to saying they don’t want to change. That’s not true of course they do want to learn – it seems the learning they value is the ‘experiential learning cycle’.
It’s interesting that the experiential learning cycle is illustrated as a single cycle with no ‘external inputs’ – it is so self-contained and if you live by it you don’t necessarily seek any input from an ‘external world’. Does such a closed loop really help people become more effective at their work in an ever changing environment with new ideas about how best to think and act being formed and tested all the time?
In discussing informal, tacit models of organisation, Patrick Hoverstadt (2008) speaks of risks involved in only relying on tacit models developed through experience. I think most of the points he makes (below) can be interpreted more broadly to apply to any ‘models’ or ‘theories’ about the world, how it works and how to act in it:
Tacit models have a number of potential weaknesses:
- The fact that they are tacit means they can hide big differences in perception between managers
- Being based on experience, they can sometimes fail to give a handle on new problems
- Being personal, they tend to reinforce individuals’ strengths rather than supporting their weaknesses
- they can restrict the capacity and willingness to initiate and deal with radical change as opposed to incremental change
Hoverstadt, P. (2008) The fractal organisation: creating sustainable organisations with the viable systems model, Wiley, Chichester, page 26
I have always seen the experiential learning cycle as a virtuous one – but now I wonder, it could be a vicious cycle. That takes me to the ‘double loop’ idea of Argyris and Schon which is intended to counteract the self-reinforcing nature of single loop learning but this does not have any sort of “seek new ideas that open up possibilities in your understanding and practice” part to it either. Has our emphasis on work-based learning and reflective practice potentially put us in a stale cycle?
This line of thought led me to draw this multi-causal diagram which illustrates my perspective of the factors that influence my learning through experience and therefore my performance/effectiveness…. seems so much more than the experiential learning cycle. It also aptly demonstrates how the possibilities for my own learning is influenced by those around me.
I recognise that the other extreme – nights in front of laptops, reading dense texts and doing assignments – is not everyone’s cup of tea. I am not suggesting that everyone should sign up for the sort of courses I do – nor do I think that necessary.
But where is the balance, how can I open up the possibilities for others to develop their systems thinking and practice without them feeling I am cramming them with academia? But how can I also challenge the ‘I don’t do diagrams’ or ‘I don’t do new theory and jargon’ or ‘I am just not as clever as you’ barriers? And, how can I introduce systems ideas and approaches in a way that I support others’ in knowing the possibilities and constraints associated with them so they can use them wisely?
I am not sure if this post is enough of a structured systemic inquiry to help me home in on any systemically desirable and culturally feasible actions but it is stimulating some ideas….
Looking back at the multi-causal diagram, I am left thinking about the mutual interaction between ‘the actions I take (practice)’ and ‘the actions others take (practice)’. There is something about how I demonstrate to others and gently introduce new language into my interactions with them. I also wonder if there are ways in which I can create a new influence between ‘the actions I take (practice)’ and ‘how others think, understand etc’ – perhaps I can deliberately do things to make that happen.
Or maybe I should just shout “stop, listen to me for a few hours and I’ll take this natural talent you have to a whole new level. I want to let you know of some language, ideas and tools that will release this natural talent” and see who turns around and says ‘yes’.