The 80s pop group Five Star sang about systems in one of their most famous hits “System Addict”, where they warbled about their connection to electronic systems of music (keyboard, Walkman etc.).
This blogpost is sadly nowhere near creative or catchy as their song, but its reference here is my vaguely clever/lazy and convenient segue way into the topic of systems theory. If you are looking for an introductory text on Systems Theory, a great “primer” is the acclaimed book Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows. She explains systems theory in a clear, lucid manner and breaks things down into digestible parts. I share a quote from an early chapter in her book which resonated with me in particular:
The elements of a system can change without massively shifting the nature of the system itself. What can change a system dramatically is when the interconnections (or relationships) in a system change, or the function/purpose of the system or parts of a system change which may result in a dramatic shift in how the system functions overall.
I wish to reiterate two important things from this quote that we need to consider when working with or changing elements of an organisation/ system:
- the nature and quality of relationships between the parts (people) who are in the system; and
- the purpose/the “why” the system itself exists.
Meadows argues that an important function of almost every system is to ensure its own perpetuation (or survival). This drive for ‘survival’ may be unconscious, automatic, or conscious and deliberate. If you take a moment to reflect on some of the systems/organisations you are connected to or part of in your life and work, you can probably identify this perpetuation taking place at different levels of consciousness and deliberation.
Now consider a specific system or organisation you belong to, for example your home/family setup, your work place (immediate team or whole institution), your group leisure activities etc. Consider:
- Firstly, why does this system exist? What is it there to do? Why does it perpetuate itself? What drives its survival/existence?
- How clear is its purpose to you, and everyone else in the system? Is the stated or assumed purpose still relevant and healthy for the world we live in today? Does the purpose need to be upgraded/refreshed?
- What is the quality of relationships between the people in the system you are thinking about? Where are relationships stronger, weaker, structured, more fluid? What impact does the nature of these relationships have on you, and on the system’s purpose (see above Q)?
- Is there a particular relationship you would like to work on, change or improve in some way? If you were successful in doing this, what difference do you think this could make to both of you, and the rest of your system?
Thinking in systems is another lens we can use to gain a different perspective and insight into the lives we have created and found ourselves in. Be curious and have some fun with it!