Systems thinking is at its best when applied

November 26, 2014

Read time 3 min

“Mankind’s greatest challenges are systemic. We create and live with systems. We flourish with systems”, said Raimo P. Hämäläinen last Thursday, opening a seminar celebrating 30 years of Systems Analysis Laboratory at Aalto University. Raimo is the Director of the laboratory. The lecture hall, the biggest at the Otaniemi campus, was packed completely full. 900 people had signed up for the event.

Keynoting the seminar was Peter Senge, a pioneer of systems thinking. His book, Fifth Discipline, has been identified by Harvard Business Review as one of the seminal management books of the past 75 years. It’s the book that opened my eyes to systems thinking.

Four seasons

“Why systems? We live embedded in systems. The whole is more than the sum of its parts”, continued Raimo, explaining the importance of systems thinking and walking through key people in the history of systems thinking. Not exactly easy to open for a superstar like Senge.

Raimo did well. When it was time for Senge, the crowd was ready. Had this been a rock concert, people would have been diving and pitting. Everyone was ecstatic. However, since this was mostly an academic event, people showed their excitement with slight, polite nods.

In his keynote Peter Senge explained how we often produce results we don’t really want. We never wake up thinking “What a beautiful day to destabilize the climate a little more”, yet that’s the result of our actions.

“Interdependence has grown. Our awareness of the interdependence has declined.” continued Senge. “We live in a world of systems ignorance. The result is suffering we don’t actually want to create.”

Senge explained how the world and all the things in it are actually just snapshots of on-going processes. He described how fishers had managed to revitalize a fish population by taking a systems view. His talk was filled with stories and he presented without slides. When Senge finished his talk, he received a standing ovation.

I was amazed. The talk was great, but I was even more surprised by the crowd’s reaction. I find most people think systems thinking is too abstract and not especially applicable to the real world. Now a huge crowd was giving a standing ovation for a talk on systems thinking. While Senge was preaching to the choir, which helped achieve this reaction, it also brought up something that’s been bubbling in the back of my head for quite a while.

I think we need a community around applied systems thinking. Systems thinking tends to mostly be an academic endeavor with very few people applying it in practice. Yet, like Hämäläinen said in his opening speech, mankind’s greatest challenges are systemic.

We need a community that’s especially focused on applied systems thinking. While theory is important we need a sharper focus on actually doing meaningful things with our knowledge of systems. We need systems thinking applied to business, organizations, government, environment, wellbeing etc.

What do you think? Would you be interested in such a community?

I would appreciate your response on Twitter, I’m @SamiHonkonen

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