The Power of a Systems Perspective

Graphic facilitation by Elise Crespin In Warren Berger’s book, A More Beautiful Question, he recalls an anecdote from education pioneer Deborah Meier that stopped me in my tracks when I read it:

“We had one of those world maps with the U.S. right in the middle—remember those? And one of the students looked at it and said, ‘How come the East Indies are in the west?’ And that question got me thinking about the impact of what you put in the center and what it does to everything else.”

I love this story because it so nicely illustrates the value of what my partners and I call “coaching from a systems perspective.” Like a good coach with a provocative question, this little girl created an opening for Meier to talk with her students about their place in a larger system and the perspective they were holding about that. Meier changed the curriculum as a result of this inquiry because “it had so many implications for how you see yourself.”

This is exactly the kind of opening we try to create with leaders who are grappling with the challenges of effecting sustainable change for themselves and their organizations. We find that it is often new insight about the vantage point from which they’re viewing a complex systems environment—and their ability to try on other vantage points—that allows them to break through to new ways of thinking and acting.

One tool we use to get a fix on what our coaching client has put in the center of her awareness, and what that “does to everything else,” is the Butterfly Framework of Complex Human Systems.  Like Meier’s world map, this framework allows us to step back and ask, “Where in this landscape of internal and external systemic forces is our client’s awareness focused? What would be possible if she shifted her awareness to another part of the system?”

Having just returned from the SoL Global Forum in Paris, where I had the pleasure of presenting a workshop on the Butterfly Framework, I can report that there is a vibrant international community of coaches and consultants who understand the evolutionary importance of greater systems awareness. Colleagues from no fewer than fifteen countries shared stories with me about how they are catalyzing transformation by helping their clients ask more beautiful questions and better see the systems they are and the systems they’re in.

What question, if you asked it right now, would move you to a new perspective?

Edith Wharton’s Round Table

Edith Wharton's TableAs the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for literature, Edith Wharton is best remembered for masterful stories and novels that consciously exposed the turn-of-the-century world of wealth and privilege she inhabited. Less well known is the fact that Wharton was an innovative designer whose first published book was The Decoration of Houses, a guide in which she and her co-author, architect Ogden Codman, Jr., pioneered an aesthetic of clean lines and graceful spaces that rejected society’s prevailing preference for ostentation.

When you visit The Mount, the country estate she built in Lenox, Massachusetts in 1902, you see many design choices that reflect Wharton’s simpler, classical sensibilities. In one important instance, you also see how she used design both to tweak the social conventions of her era and to stimulate her inner storyteller.

Other estates being built at this time featured large dining rooms in which massive rectangular tables were intended to impress. In his place at the head of the table, the host’s status would be perfectly clear. By contrast, for the dining room at The Mount, Wharton created a smaller, intimate space, opening onto the garden and full of light. At its center she placed a small, round table, just big enough to accommodate eight people. And at this round table, where corners couldn’t “cut off conversation,” she and her guests (often including her dear friend Henry James) engaged as equals in lively literary dialogue.

Wharton was no feminist. Politically conservative, she moved to France after her marriage ended and stayed there until she died, avoiding the awkwardness of divorced life in American high society. Nevertheless, in her round table, I see a tiny contribution to the dramatic social changes that were afoot. As any experienced facilitator can tell you, when you change the space, you change the conversation—and there is nothing like a circle to get people talking and telling stories.

How do you create spaces where conversation and change can happen?

Slowing Down

November 5, 2013 6 comments

shaker-adult-cradleMy husband and I turned the clocks back twice this past weekend. We turned them back on Sunday of course, because we like to keep in step with the world around us; we also turned them back—in a more metaphorical way—on Saturday when we took my mom to visit the Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, Massachusetts.

The Fruitlands property was at its autumnal best, surrounded by big sky and sweeping ranks of leafy rolling hills. There was little intrusion of modern reality as we browsed the loosely connected mementos of other lives preserved in the museum’s collections—from Native American settlements, to the 18th century beginnings of the local Shaker community, to the 19th century Utopian commune of Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane.

We saw many reminders of how our relationship to time has changed over the past two centuries. Long hand-written letters and carefully crafted furniture and textiles suggested the deep breath and steady heartbeat of people absorbed in painstaking tasks. But nothing stopped me in my tracks like this adult-sized cradle that the Shakers used when caring for the sick and dying. This humble object, and the tender images it conjured, made me wonder if—for all our positive advances—we have been losing our capacity for patience and presence in our rush toward the future.

What slows you down?

Endings are Beginnings

September 11, 2013 Leave a comment

 “Life and death are one thread, the same line viewed from different sides.”
—Lao Tzu

fallen tree

I, like many in the systems thinking community, was saddened to see the demise this past spring of Pegasus Communications. For over twenty years, this lively little company had created and distributed user-friendly resources that enabled managers, teachers, and change agents of all stripes to act with greater understanding of the dynamic interdependencies in their operating environments. The Pegasus annual conference was like a family reunion to a community of people who see systems literacy as essential to our survival as a species.

At the same time, being systems thinkers, members of this community are not inclined to dwell too long in a state of sadness and loss. Instead, they are quick to recognize that, as in any living system where death gives rise to new life, the abandonment of old forms is a necessary component of learning and growth.

Just as the fallen trees I saw while hiking in Pennsylvania last month provide fertile ground for the emergence of new organisms—and the renewal of the forest—so the passing of Pegasus creates a space ripe with possibilities for innovation.

It is into this space that Siraj Sirajuddin of Temenos has entered, with great spirit and optimism, to host the 23rd Annual Systems Thinking in Action Conference, November 14–16, 2013 in the Washington, DC area (in beautiful Leesburg, VA). I am sure that the inextinguishable curiosity, creativity, and energy of the systems thinking community will make this a stimulating and memorable new beginning.

Seek Alternate Route

road work signSummer is the time for road work in New England. As the weather warms and schedules ease a bit, public work crews seize their short window of opportunity to repair the cracks and potholes wrought by winter. “Seek Alternate Route” signs are everywhere.

Groan. My first reaction to that message is aggravation. What an inconvenience! But, wait a minute—wasn’t I just complaining about the potholes, too?

One of the watchwords familiar to systems thinkers is worse before better. It’s a handy phrase for reminding the impatient and impetuous among us to keep the longer view in mind. By thinking long-term, we can better anticipate the unintended consequences of that seemingly simple quick fix. We can more readily accept the temporary discomfort of significant course correction by focusing on the improvement it will bring.

The pain of rehab after hip surgery may lead to pain-free walks on the beach. Sales numbers that sag during a major process redesign may soar when the new processes are up and running. The deceleration and detours that accompany road reconstruction give way to a delightfully smooth driving experience.

Tuning in to longer feedback loops can reduce your agitation level. And besides, who knows what you’ll discover along that alternate route?

Figuring It Out

copyright 2012 Michael SchubertWith President Obama’s recent push for accelerated investment in brain research, we can expect the coming years to deliver a steady flow of discoveries about how we process information. This is welcome news for me, because I’m always up for a good story about mirror neurons or brain plasticity.

You can’t imagine how delighted I was when Daniel Pink published A Whole New Mind a few years back and proclaimed that “right-brainers would rule the future.” But I’m afraid the revolution may be slow in coming. The more we learn about our brain’s astonishing range and capacity, the more I am struck by our tenacious allegiance to “reason” and “logic” as the go-to tools for workplace problem solving. Regardless of the nature of the problem, we seem to think we can think our way out of it.

My heart goes out to the leader or change agent who, when confronted with a relationship challenge, or when puzzling over a question of vision or values, frowns and confesses, “I can’t figure it out.” Could it be—I might gently suggest—that not every problem lends itself to quantitative analysis? Rather than figure it out, could you…

  • Draw it out?
  • Dream it out?
  • Dance it out?
  • Sing it out?
  • Swim it out?
  • Bake it out?
  • Breathe it out?

Next time you’re struggling to make sense of something…what would happen if you turned to some of your other senses for insight? Maybe that’s what they’re there for?

Makers: Choosing to Change the Story

February 27, 2013 4 comments

Miriam Hawley, Co-Founder, Boston Women's Health Collective, featured in the Makers project from AOL and PBSI have no choice.”

We all have experienced a time when that sentence felt immutably true. Most of us have said it out loud more than once. But, the longer I think about it, the more I come to see that we almost always have a choice. It’s just that some choices are tougher than others because they seem to conflict with the story we believe we’re living.

As I watched Makers on PBS, an assertively present-tense celebration of trailblazing American women, it occurred to me that the phrase “pro-choice” can be seen as much more than a label describing someone’s position on reproductive rights. For the women featured in this film, pro-choice is a way of being; a way of saying, “We are willing to take bold action, even when it’s uncomfortable or scary, to challenge the prevailing norms in this story we’re living together.”

And the word “we” is important there.

In Sheena Iyengar’s brilliant research on how our feelings about choice are shaped by culture, she examines how Americans’ insistence on the primacy of individual choice is not always as liberating or effective as we might think. She suggests we might benefit by borrowing a little perspective from cultures in which it’s understood that, “when two or more individuals see their choices and their outcomes as intimately connected, then they may amplify each other’s success by turning choosing into a collective act.”

Therein lies the power of the women’s movement in America. Paradoxically, the individual choices that these (sometimes accidental) activists make are rooted in a fundamental value of interdependency. Rather than settle for constraints on individual choice imposed by hierarchical power structures that diminish us, they choose to change the story to one of greater equilibrium.

As Gloria Steinem observed in an interview on the PBS NewsHour, “This is transformation we’re talking about; to get to societies in which, as we once were, we are linked, not ranked; in which the paradigm of culture is the circle, not the pyramid.”

Is there an “I have no choice” experience in your life that you can courageously transform into a “we have a choice” moment?