I’m now back from a seven-week summer sabbatical in Chicago. Alongside improv workshops and taking stage to tell stories, I spent much of my time learning about Systems Design.
In particular, I grew fascinated with Jamshid Gharagedaghi’s Systems Thinking; Managing Chaos and Complexity (2005). I saw parallels between the call for student-directed, project-based classrooms and Gharagedaghi’s projections for organizational success in the 21st century:
“The age-old lesson behind the rise and fall of human institutions: success changes the game and converts, by default, the very secrets of success to the ultimate seeds of destruction.“
What follows is a selection of excerpts and summaries from Jamshid Gharagedaghi’s Systems Thinking; Managing Chaos and Complexity (2005). I offer this brief in response to members of OCADU’s 2014 Strategic Foresight and Innovation Graduate Class who, despite the text’s inclusion on their readings list, reported skipping the reading due its relative density and complexity. My hope is that the pages that follow will offer a basic sense of the foundational implications of Systems Thinking and grounds for reading the complete text.
I came to Systems Design as someone interested in shifting the traditional high school experience. I believe that learning rooted in authentic experience and the real interests of students is better for all stakeholders. Consistent with the practice of self-directed, project-based education, my work aims to transition teenagers from institutional notions of achievement towards skills development that are more likely to improve the particular circumstances of their lives. As I’m fond of saying, ‘A job will never make you wealthy. Best get started on building something you can call your own. ‘
Implementing a classroom practice that shifts according to the unique context and values of students has proven a significant undertaking, and I’ve iterated platforms and techniques in an effort to encourage students, teachers, administrators and parents to embrace a more process-oriented approach to schooling.
The broad field of Systems Thinking, and Gharagedaghi’s writing in particular, has helped me recognize the elemental nature of the challenges I encounter. The text also offers tools, strategies and examples that shift organizations away from predetermined algorithms of behavior towards malleable, generative communities of interdependent, autonomous individuals behaving in manners consistent with the greater interest.
What is Systems Thinking?
Wikipedia describes Systems Thinking as the “process of understanding how things, regarded as systems, influence one another within a whole”. Gharagedaghi says it is far more valuable to consider the whole as a means to understand its parts, than it is to take the sum of the parts in an effort to see the whole.
At best, Systems Thinking offers an approximation on what might be going on, a way of looking at the world. If all things are interconnected, an effort to define boundaries is a fool’s errand. Taking time to notice patterns and relationships and emergent qualities of those relationships offers insight into the mechanics of our circumstances. By no means prescriptive, Systems Mapping offers an opportunity to design towards a more thriving experience.
This text considers the specific context of human organizations, what Gharagedaghi calls a ‘multiminded system’, a voluntary association of purposeful members. The cohesive ingredient is membership’s shared image of a desirable future. Our behavior is related to this image, and ingrained behavior can be thought of as culture. Recognizing and shaping the culture of organizations is a central theme for Gharagedaghi. He aims for members to develop a sense of autonomy such that effective choices are made within the unique context of their environment while simultaneously integrating members into a cohesive and effective whole.
Why Should I Care?
The context in which we live is shifting. Adhering to choices and routines that proved successful in the past will lead to future peril. For instance, the industrial model of school, characterized by guardianship and ready-made programs, prepares students for a stable job market, an approach that leaves contemporary youth unprepared for the malleability and enterprise required in an unstable world.
My particular hope is that those involved in shaping the lives of youth will discover value in helping kids take agency for themselves and recognize the harm in prioritizing achievement of predetermined outcomes over the enablement and development of decision-making capacity in youth. Beyond the scope of education, Systems Thinking is a powerful premise to consider the world in which we live and the influence we have upon it. Be it in business or community or family, we have an opportunity to foster more human experiences for ourselves and others.
Consistent with my understanding of Financial Principles (wealth flows through investment) and Positive Psychology (contentment flows from agency to pursue personally meaningful activity), Systems Design reinforces the notion that a common characteristic of successful organizations are autonomous people interacting within bounded communities of common interest. This text offers some grounds for manifesting this nature of organization.