Many years ago, a great book was written: “The Fifth Discipline”, by Peter Senge. I didn’t read it then – have read it only recently – but I understand how important this book and its thoughts have been for the development of a better understanding of certain things in companies.
“Certain things” is - as an afterthought – easily boiled down to the concept of systems thinking, which is an understanding that there is “more than meet the eyes” and that consequences can be found far away from the causes, in time and space. Actually, an assumed consequence might not be the consequence of anything in particular – but rather the effect of a system of objects and attributes that to a large degree is subject to “autopoiesis”; a self-maintainability, a solidity as a system, where even large changes in details still makes the system as a whole easily recognisable. An example is a human being, a person, where loosing a leg or a kidney doesn’t change the perception that it is still the same person. Or a company, where adding a new product or changing a work procedure is still done by the perceived same company.
Idea lost in companies
When I look around and try to understand how companies work, I do see activities done on the basic understanding of systems thinking. But I do not see results. Probably the abstract concept of “company” is in itself systemized to a degree where it also is subject to autopoiesis.
Companies are sharing knowledge – or at least, they try to. But most of the time that knowledge is not being used. Each employee, no matter the level, seems to have an idea of knowing something themselves that is more important in the situation than the combined and accumulated knowledge of the whole company collected over time. A moment of observation seems to give a person the confidence in seeing everything clearly and the ability to make the right solution, be it acting, advising or just drawing conclusions.
Companies also create new artificial problems, for instance by reorganizing, in order to ensure that nothing can be done solely by routine. This is expected to keep everyone in the company fit and establish a culture of innovation and problem solving. What it does is simply to ruin what works and make people frustrated over having to spend time on dragging everything back (or twisting and cheating the “new system”) in order to do what they did before. The only thing that is kept fit by this concept is stress and frustration – always being at a high level.
And companies are coaching, apparently in order to make sure that everyone can learn from others and get inspired to learn from themselves as well. But more often than not, the “coaching” is in reality being used as part of a control and incentive mechanism, where both the coach and the coachee must play certain roles and say certain things in order to not get punished by the system. They are not learning anything – and they are certainly not part of a learning culture – but are instead developing good faking skills.
Idea lost in life
Just now I am involved with a situation where someone close to me is spending a lot of time in hospitals and with seing doctors, nurses and people supposed to assist and advice in various ways.
And every single day I see how a moment’s observation can lead to what appears to be a full understanding of the “facts”. Doctors do this a lot. They conclude on everything from the need for a certain mineral to the quality of life for the patient. Nurses advice on taking medicine, simply because that medicine seems to work on other patients. Family members advice on whether the patient should live a valuable life with the risk of dying earlier – or to lie down in a hospital bed forever without really living, simply because that might prolong what technically can be called life.
And all of these people - and many more – often draw their conclusions and give advice on the basis of a moment of observation. On the basis of single events og a few words, they happened to hear from a longer conversation. It doesn’t appear to them that there might be more they need to know about before understanding the patient, the person system, well enough to give advice. As soon as they start talking, they feel confident that what sounds like a good advice really is. Without knowing. Because they feel that they can see everything clearly.
The future for systems thinking
It seems to me that the idea of systems thinking is living only in the thoughts of a few philosophically minded people. In real life, it has no chance since human beings are so dedicated to the positivist idea of cause and consequence, and the idea of simply finding the problem, and then (with the right experience), the cure is given and indisputable.
Did systems thinking ever have a real chance? Were people always like this? Do people in general care at all about understanding the situation – or are they more interested in being “right” in the eyes and ears of the people who listen to them?
Or, more philosophically – is life simply a matter of winning and loosing, not about understanding and improving?