Systems Theory: The Most Accurate Understanding of Your Life & Reality
A Zen Master lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain.
One evening, while he was away, a thief sneaked into the hut only to find there was nothing in it to steal. The Zen Master returned and found him.
“You have come a long way to visit me,” he told the prowler, “and you should not return empty-handed. Please take my clothes as a gift.”
The thief was bewildered, but he took the clothes and ran away. The Master sat naked, watching the moon.
“Poor fellow,” he mused, ” I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”
Explanation Of The Wisdom
A solid understanding of systems theory + a practical spiritual integration of its primary principles is essential for the investigation of truth. In fact, for a life dedicated to greater understanding, fulfillment and happiness at the deepest level.
As you view reality through the lens of systems theory, you’ll see avenues you have yet to explore in your spiritual journey. It is a forever open feedback channel that is left within the system until your last breath.
Spoiler Alert: Your entire mind/body system and reality structure is expressed within the core principles of systems theory.
Here are some of my explorations and studies into systems theory.
The Essence of Systems Theory
1- Understand the Key Harmony of the System
Before you disturb the system in any way, watch how it behaves.
If it’s a piece of music or a whitewater rapid or a fluctuation in a commodity price, study its beat. If it’s a social system, watch it work. Learn its history. Ask people who’ve been around a long time to tell you what has happened.
This guideline is deceptively simple. Until you make it a practice, you won’t believe how many wrong turns it helps you avoid. Starting with the behavior of the system forces you to focus on facts, not theories. It keeps you from falling too quickly into your own beliefs or misconceptions, or those of others.
It’s amazing how many misconceptions there can be. People will swear that rainfall is decreasing, say, but when you look at the data, you find that what is really happening is that variability is increasing—the droughts are deeper, but the floods are greater too.
It’s especially interesting to watch how the various elements in the system do or do not vary together. Watching what really happens, instead of listening to peoples’ theories of what happens, can explode many careless causal hypotheses.
Every selectman in the state of New Hampshire seems to be positive that growth in a town will lower taxes, but if you plot growth rates against tax rates, you find a scatter as random as the stars in a New Hampshire winter sky. There is no discernible relationship at all.
Starting with the behavior of the system directs one’s thoughts to dynamic, not static, analysis—not only to “What’s wrong?” but also to “How did we get there?” “What other behavior modes are possible?” “If we don’t change direction, where are we going to end up?”
And looking to the strengths of the system, one can ask “What’s working well here?”
Starting with the history of several variables plotted together begins to suggest not only what elements are in the system, but how they might be interconnected.
And finally, starting with history discourages the common and distracting tendency we all have to define a problem not by the system’s actual behavior, but by the lack of our favorite solution. – The problem is, we need to find more oil. The problem is, we need to ban abortion. The problem is, we don’t have enough salesmen. The problem is, how can we attract more growth to this town?
Listen to any discussion, in your family or a committee meeting at work or among the pundits in the media, and watch people leap to solutions, usually solutions in “predict, control, or impose your will” mode, without having paid any attention to what the system is doing and why it’s doing it.
2- Explore Your Mental Models Clearly (After Direct Experience)
When we draw structural diagrams and then write equations, we are forced to make our assumptions visible and to express them with rigor. We have to put every one of our assumptions about the system out where others (and we ourselves) can see them.
Our models have to be complete, and they have to add up, and they have to be consistent. Our assumptions can no longer slide around (mental models are very slippery), assuming one thing for purposes of one discussion and something else contradictory for purposes of the next discussion.
You don’t have to put forth your mental model with diagrams and equations, although doing so is a good practice. The more you do that, in any form, the clearer your thinking will become, the faster you will admit your uncertainties and correct your mistakes, and the more flexible you will learn to be.
Mental flexibility—the willingness to redraw boundaries, to notice that a system has shifted into a new mode, to see how to redesign structure—is a necessity when you live in a world of flexible systems.
3- Respect Data & Information Channels
Information (both conceptual and non-conceptual) holds systems in harmony whereas delayed, biased, scattered, corrupted or missing data can make feedback loops malfunction.
For instance, decision makers can’t respond to information they don’t have, can’t respond accurately to information that is inaccurate, and can’t respond in a timely way to information that is late. I would guess that most of what goes wrong in systems goes wrong because of biased, late, or missing information.
If I could, I would add an eleventh commandment to the first ten: Thou shalt not distort, delay, or withhold information.
You can drive a system crazy by muddying its information streams. You can make a system work better with surprising ease if you can give it more timely, more accurate, more complete information.
4 – Attend to What is Important, Not What is Immediately Perceivable and Quantifiable
Our culture, obsessed with numbers, has given us the idea that what we can measure is more important than what we can’t measure. Think about that for a minute. It means that we make quantity more important than quality.
If quantity forms the goals of our feedback loops, if quantity is the center of our attention and language and institutions, if we motivate ourselves, rate ourselves, and reward ourselves on our ability to produce quantity, then quantity will be the result.
You can look around and make up your own mind about whether quantity or quality is the outstanding characteristic of the world in which you live.
Pretending that something doesn’t exist if it’s hard to quantify leads to faulty models. You’ve already seen the system trap that comes from setting goals around what is easily measured, rather than around what is important.
So don’t fall into that trap. Human beings have been endowed not only with the ability to count, but also with the ability to assess quality.
Be a quality detector. Be a walking, noisy Geiger counter that registers the presence or absence of quality.
No one can quite define or measure justice, democracy, security, freedom, truth, or love. No one can define or measure any value.
But if no one speaks up for them, if systems aren’t designed to produce them, if we don’t directly experience and radiate them, if we dont point toward their presence or absence, they will cease to exist within the social reality the system is based on.
5- Generate Feedback Policies Within Feedback Loops
President Jimmy Carter had an unusual ability to think in feedback terms and to make feedback policies. Unfortunately, he had a hard time explaining them to a press and public that didn’t understand feedback. Let me explain:
Carter was trying to deal with a flood of illegal immigrants from Mexico. He suggested that nothing could be done about that immigration as long as there was a great gap in opportunity and living standards between the United States and Mexico. Rather than spending money on border guards and barriers, he said, we should spend money helping to build the Mexican economy, and we should continue to do so until the immigration stopped.
That never happened. This is a failure of feedback policy.
You can imagine why a dynamic, self-adjusting feedback system cannot be governed by a static, unbending policy.
It’s easier, more effective, and usually much cheaper to design policies that change depending on the state of the system.
Especially where there are great uncertainties, the best policies not only contain feedback loops, but meta-feedback loops—loops that alter, correct, and expand loops. These are policies that design learning into the management process.
6- Value the Good of the Whole
Remember that hierarchies exist to serve the bottom layers, not the top.
Don’t maximize parts of systems or subsystems while ignoring the whole. Don’t, as Kenneth Boulding once said, go to great trouble to optimize something that never should be done at all.
Aim to enhance total systems properties, such as growth, stability, diversity, resilience, and sustainability—whether they are easily measured or not.
7- Listen to the Wisdom of the System
Aid and encourage the forces and structures that help the system run itself.
Notice how many of those forces and structures are at the bottom of the hierarchy. Don’t be an unthinking intervenor and destroy the system’s own self-maintenance capacities.
Before you charge in to make things better, pay attention to the value of what’s already there.
Get a feel for what to play with and what to allow its maturation process to unfold at its own pace.
8- Locate Responsibility Within the System & Open its Feedback Channels
That’s a guideline both for analysis and design. In analysis, it means looking for the ways the system creates its own behavior.
Do pay attention to the triggering events, the outside influences that bring forth one kind of behavior from the system rather than another. Sometimes those outside events can be controlled (as in reducing the pathogens in drinking water to keep down incidences of infectious disease). But sometimes they can’t.
You need to accept that.
And sometimes blaming or trying to control the outside influence blinds one to the easier task of increasing responsibility within the system.
“Intrinsic responsibility” means that the system is designed to send feedback about the consequences of decision making directly and quickly and compellingly to the decision makers.
In a sense, the pilot of a plane rides in the front of the plane, that pilot is intrinsically responsible. He or she will experience directly the consequences of his or her decisions.
Designing a system for intrinsic responsibility could mean, for example, requiring all towns or companies that emit wastewater into a stream to place their intake pipes downstream from their outflow pipe. It could mean that neither insurance companies nor public funds should pay for medical costs resulting from smoking or from accidents in which a motorcycle rider didn’t wear a helmet or a car rider didn’t fasten the seat belt
A great deal of responsibility was lost when rulers of a nation who declared war were no longer expected to lead the troops into battle.
These few examples are enough to get you thinking about how little our current culture has come to look for responsibility within the system that generates an action, and how poorly we design systems to experience the consequences of their actions.
9- Always Stay a Student
Systems thinking has taught me to trust my intuition more and my figuring- out rationality less, to lean on both as much as I can, but still to be prepared for surprises.
Working with systems, on the computer, in nature, among people, in organizations, constantly reminds me of how incomplete my mental models are, how complex the world is, and how much I don’t know.
That’s hard. It means making mistakes and, worse, admitting them. It means what psychologist Don Michael calls “error-embracing.” It takes a lot of courage to embrace your errors
10- Embrace Complexity
Let’s face it, the universe is messy. It is nonlinear, turbulent, and dynamic. It spends its time in transient behavior on its way to somewhere else, not in mathematically neat equilibria. It self-organizes and evolves. It creates diversity and uniformity.
That’s what makes the world interesting, and that’s what makes it beautiful.
There’s something within the human mind that is attracted to straight lines and not curves, to whole numbers and not fractions, to uniformity and not diversity, and to certainties and not mystery.
But there is something else within us that has the opposite set of tendencies, since we ourselves evolved out of and are shaped by and structured as complex feedback systems.
Only a part of us, a part that has emerged recently, designs buildings as boxes with uncompromising straight lines and flat surfaces.
Another part of us recognizes instinctively that nature designs in fractals, with intriguing detail on every scale from the microscopic to the macroscopic. That part of us makes Gothic cathedrals and Persian carpets, symphonies and novels, Mardi Gras costumes and artificial intelligence programs, all with embellishments almost as complex as the ones we find in the world around us.
We can, and some of us do, celebrate and encourage self-organization, disorder, variety, and diversity. Some of us even make a conscious moral commitment of doing so.
11- Expand the Time Axiom
One of the worst ideas humanity ever had was the interest rate, which led to the further ideas of payback periods and discount rates, all of which provide a rational, quantitative excuse for ignoring the long term.
The official time horizon of industrial society doesn’t extend beyond what will happen after the next election or beyond the payback period of current investments.
Don’t make the same mistake.
In a strict systems sense, there is no long term and short-term distinction.
Phenomena at different time-scales are nested within each other.
Actions taken now have some immediate effects and some that radiate out for decades to come. We experience now the consequences of actions set in motion yesterday and decades ago and centuries ago.
The couplings between very fast processes and very slow ones are sometimes strong, sometimes weak. When the slow ones dominate, nothing seems to be happening; when the fast ones take over, things happen with breathtaking speed.
Systems are always coupling and uncoupling the large and the small, the fast and the slow.
When you’re walking along a tricky, curving, unknown, surprising, obstacle-strewn path, you’d be a fool to keep your head down and look just at the next step in front of you. You’d be equally a fool just to peer far ahead and never notice what’s immediately under your feet.
You need to be watching both the short and the long term—the whole system.
12 – Defy the Disciplines
In spite of what you majored in, or what the textbooks say, or what you think you’re an expert at, follow a system wherever it leads. It will be sure to lead across traditional disciplinary lines.
To understand that system, you will have to be able to learn from—while not being limited by—economists and chemists and psychologists and theologians.
You will have to penetrate their jargons, integrate what they tell you, recognize what they can honestly see through their particular lenses, and discard the distortions that come from the narrowness and incompleteness of their lenses.
They won’t make it easy for you. But you can do it.
Seeing systems whole requires more than being “interdisciplinary,” if that word means, as it usually does, putting together people from different disciplines and letting them talk past each other.
Interdisciplinary communication works only if there is a real problem to be solved, and if the representatives from the various disciplines are more committed to solving the problem than to being academically correct.
They will have to go into learning mode. They will have to admit ignorance and be willing to be taught, by each other and by the system.
It can be done. But, ego gets in the way if not careful.
13- Expand the Boundary of Care – Empathy – Compassion – Love
Living successfully in a world of complex systems means expanding not only time and thought horizons; above all, it means expanding the horizons of love.
There are moral reasons for doing that, of course. And if moral arguments are not sufficient, then systems thinking provides the practical reasons to back up the moral ones.
The real system is interconnected. No part of the human race is separate either from other human beings or from the global ecosystem.
It will not be possible in this integrated world for your heart to succeed if your lungs fail, or for your company to succeed if your workers fail, or for the rich in Los Angeles to succeed if the poor in Los Angeles fail, or for Europe to succeed if Africa fails, or for the global economy to succeed if the global environment fails.
As with everything else about systems, most people already know about the interconnections that make moral and practical rules turn out to be the same rules. They just have to bring themselves to experience that which they know.
Hope you get value from this post.
Let me know your thoughts.
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Excellent article! Thank you so much!
You are welcome, Bernard. Hope you get value from my free daily email letters on Psychology and Spirituality. Read them daily!