Making musical sense by email, special feature
It turns out, not surprisingly, that I'm not alone in having these thoughts. Friend and colleague Dr. Glenda Eoyang has been having similar thoughts regarding a different systems thinking methodology. Glenda started exploring nonlinear dynamics and social systems in 1989, received her doctorate in Human Systems Dynamics in 2002, and founded the Human Systems Dynamics Institute in 2003. She teaches, consults, researches, and writes. She helps people see patterns that emerge from the chaos of human interactions and take adaptive action to increase coherence, health, and sustainability for individuals, teams, institutions, and communities. Her profound understanding of the many theoretical streams of complexity science and her gift for clarity make her an excellent guide into the world of human systems dynamics.
Because she's using similar approaches in a related field, I invited her to share her thoughts with us.
Technology matures and, thank goodness, we do, too. In Seattle there is an elegant hotel that was built by Ford Motor Company early in the last century. Gentlemen would live in the hotel while they learned the basic skills of car ownership, including driving and auto mechanics. Six months after the hotel was built, Ford found more efficient ways to meet their customers’ needs. I, too, have been seduced by the new. Fully one quarter of the first computer course I wrote covered binary arithmetic and the history of computing. Today, only the mathematicians and historians find that stuff interesting. In the dawning phases of a technology, bridges to the past are critical. As the technology emerges it integrates into our other intelligences, and we return our focus to the work at hand. The technology becomes a means rather than an end in itself. In future I hope we will be as amazed that people spent days learning “systems thinking” skills as we are with Ford’s hotel and the history of computing as a core competence for users.
When I discover a new technology it seems complicated and exotic. I want to understand its secrets and plumb its depths. For a short time, the technology itself is a preoccupation. I focus on it as if it were an end in itself. Over time, though, I become accustomed to the new ways to think and act. I absorb the new views and tools into my repertoire. They become a part of me, and I am able to see through them rather than focusing on them directly.
Today, my clients are more ready to think systemically than they are to learn about systems thinking. I believe this is the transition Bill and others are seeing in themselves and their clients. For example, a colleague who is a professional evaluator doesn’t design and implement “evaluation systems.” Rather, she works as part of the management team to generate and present meaningful data in response to specific strategic and tactical questions. Another Human Systems Dynamics Associate works in a school system, using the language of education and educational reform to spark conversation and action about complex human systems dynamics. I’m supporting a strategic planning process for a fast-growing international consulting firm. I introduce tools and techniques only in service of the conversation toward the organization’s business goals and improved performance. I add value not because I bring an exotic set of mysterious tools but because I use powerful tools to help them think and act with more insight, intention, and collaboration.
This transformation isn’t easy for me. I like binary arithmetic. I feel powerful when I hold the keys to a mysterious new discipline. On the other hand, my clients find the transition quite appealing. We work together on their concerns, leveraging their knowledge and expectations, rather than asking them to leave their world views behind and align with my arcane methods and visions of reality.
I am beginning to think of myself as a “praxis partner”—one who works with others to blend theory and practice in the service of effective action. As the technology of systems thinking matures, I hope my clients and I can, too.
Glenda H. Eoyang, Ph.D.
Executive Director, Human Systems Dynamics Institute
What are you seeing in your organizations? Are people doing more of this blending there, too? Is that helpful, or do you miss something in the process? Both Glenda and I would enjoy hearing your feedback. Comment here, or contact Glenda or me directly.