Posts Tagged ‘systems thinking’

Moneyball: Throwing the System a Change-up

October 31, 2011 2 comments

baseballFor a story about statistics, the movie Moneyball is remarkably effective in exposing the emotional side of systems change.

The film is based on the eponymous bestselling book by Michael Lewis. It chronicles the surprising success of the 2002 Oakland A’s after their general manager, Billy Beane, adopted a “sabermetric” approach to player selection, with the help of a young statistician schooled in Bill James’s data-driven baseball philosophy.

The first emotion we encounter is despair as Beane recognizes the futility of trying to compete for star players with  big-market teams whose payrolls dwarf the one he has to work with. But out of that despair comes Beane’s willingness to look at non-traditional techniques (to innovate), and his curiosity about what success factors might be hidden beneath the surface in the statistical details. The data offers up a promising leverage point for change: On-base percentage (OBP), and Beane proceeds to build his strategy around it.

The next emotions we see are confusion and anger, as the team’s long-serving scouting and talent development staff react to Beane’s new plan. Their response will be recognizable to anyone who has tried to implement change in a deeply entrenched system. The scouts can’t believe that anyone would dismiss their carefully-considered player assessments after all the time and effort they’ve expended on behalf of the organization. They feel betrayed; and their resistance creates a balancing force that threatens to stop the change in its tracks.

But, the emotion that wins the day is courage, as Beane and his young protégé/mentor stick with their plan despite delays in the system that deny immediate gratification, because the success of the new strategy can only be measured over time. In the end, their patience and persistence are rewarded with widespread joy, as the team wins their division—although they fall short of the ultimate prize of a World Series win.

The result of this experiment was not just a turnaround for the A’s that season, but a sea change in the way major league baseball evaluates and develops talent. Of course, once OBP and other statistical leverage points were brought to light, the teams with deeper pockets could exploit them, too (as the Red Sox did with their World Series victory two years later). So, the A’s and other small-market teams are back in the position of having to find innovative ways to win in a system whose lopsided disparities in buying power continue to breed frustration and, happily, a healthy dose of determination.


Seeing Yourself Whole

Flower mandalaWhat is the source of your greatest contribution to the world?

a) My remarkable brain
b) My big, generous heart
c) My beautiful body
d) My enlightened soul

You’re one step ahead of me, aren’t you? Of course, the answer is e) All of the above! As a complex, dynamic human system, your ability to live with purpose and impact here on earth comes not from any one dimension of your being, but from the continuous interoperation of all of them.

It’s easy to forget this fundamental truth when we get caught up in the expectations of a system—work, family, church, community—that seems only to want a piece of us. But when we collapse our sense of self to accommodate the perceived preferences of others, we forfeit much of the creative energy that comes with full self-awareness.

Conversely, when we maintain our awareness of self as a complex, dynamic whole, the rewards that accrue to us and those around us are immeasurable: We expand our options for intervening when we’re stuck or off-track; we gain clarity about the values that enliven us and the purpose that drives us forward; we gain confidence in our capacity for sustained contribution.

That’s why it’s important and courageous work to assert our wholeness on behalf of our own fulfillment and in service to others. In a feature article in this month’s issue of The Systems Thinker newsletter from Pegasus Communications, I offer a few ideas and tools, such as The Round Resume, to help you awaken and sustain your awareness of self as a whole system of power and purpose.

Let’s Talk About Food

Endless tables conversationThe dreary weather conditions in the Boston area this past weekend did not discourage thousands of people from attending an innovative outdoor festival at the Museum of Science celebrating and exploring our relationship with food and food systems.

As one of several volunteer facilitators, I had the privilege of engaging in conversations at an “endless table” where festival attendees dropped in to discuss various aspects of food production, distribution, consumption, and regulation.

Festival organizers set the conditions for lively dialogue by providing dry-erase placemats that offered provocative data points and questions relating to six topic areas: Nutrition, Food Access, Seafood, Farming, Food Safety, and Labels and Marketing. Experts on hand to field questions and share their opinions included farmers, wholesale buyers, food scientists, academics, public health officials, and consumer and community advocates. The reflections and suggestions generated in the conversations were captured by museum staff for later publication on the web.

I don’t know which I enjoyed more, picking up a lot of new insights about how “what we eat affects our bodies, our planet, our economy, and our future,” or marveling at our capacity for constructive public discourse when we design the process effectively. A spirit of collective curiosity and good will was palpable throughout the event.

After the festival I found myself appreciating how the simple act of eating connects us to so many other human beings through unseen threads of interdependence. I thought of Thich Nhat Hanh’s good counsel to savor our food and his observation that an “…apple is not simply a quick snack to quiet a grumbling stomach. It is something more complex, something part of a greater whole.”

Like the apple, we are each a complex part of a greater whole. Thanks to the Museum of Science and its sponsors for helping us stay mindful of that delicious complexity.

Be Like Bucky

January 24, 2011 3 comments

US postal stamp honoring R. Buckminster FullerIt’s funny that Bucky Fuller famously observed that he seemed to be a verb rather than a noun.

Because it was adjectives that were foremost in my mind as I left last Friday’s performance of “R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and mystery) of the Universe” at the A.R.T. in Cambridge. Besides Brilliant, of course, Bucky struck me as…

Curious: Rather than be defeated by the sort of exile imposed upon him by near-blindness as a toddler and later by expulsion from Harvard, Fuller recognized the upside of seeing things differently. “People should think things out fresh,” he said, “and not just accept conventional terms and the conventional way of doing things.”

Playful: Bucky had an infectious sense of wonder and a generous way of inviting others into his sandbox. In the metaphor “Spaceship Earth,” for example, Fuller found a colorful and lighthearted image to jolt us into a new awareness of our shared responsibility for our tiny, exquisitely designed planet.

Compassionate: Fuller had losses and disappointments in his early career and at a particularly low point, when he was in his early 30s, he even contemplated ending his life. What brought him back from the brink of despair was his fundamental belief that “we are here for each other.” He recommitted to living the rest of his life as “an experiment to discover what the little, penniless, unknown individual might be able to do effectively on behalf of all humanity.”

Audacious: Bucky believed that we have the ability and the resources to solve literally all of the social, environmental, and economic problems from which humans suffer. He heralded a design science revolution in which, by observing and replicating Nature’s efficiency, we can continuously learn to do more with less, rendering scarcity and waste obsolete and making physical wellbeing available to everyone on the planet.

Inspirational: Fuller denied being an optimist, saying rather that humanity’s future is very much “touch-and-go.” Nevertheless, his philosophy was imbued with a deep faith in human capacity and the power of individual intention. His tombstone is inscribed with the phrase “Call me Trim Tab,” a reference to the tiny part of a rudder which, when moved, causes the redirection of a ship as massive as an oceanliner. He felt that it was within every individual’s power to exercise his or her option to be a trim tab.

Thomas Derrah’s exuberant portrayal of Fuller in this D.W. Jacobs production illuminates the great thinker’s tender, expansive heart while introducing us to some of the big ideas for which he’s known. Although I enjoyed learning a bit more about tetrahedrons and pattern integrity, I have to admit that it was Bucky’s way of being that stuck with me the most as I thought back on the show.

Not all of us have the intellectual wattage of a Buckminster Fuller, but we can all be curious, playful, compassionate, and audacious. We can all inspire ourselves and others by doing our part to steer Spaceship Earth on a course that works for everyone.

Just Enough

“If I wphoto by Mike Schuberton the lottery all my problems would be solved!” Right?

Well, not necessarily; not according to Lynne Twist the anti-hunger activist who in her brilliant book, The Soul of Money, took me through a bracing re-examination of my relationship with money.

As a successful fundraiser, Twist has worked intimately with people at every level of financial advantage and disadvantage. From her first-hand observation that excessive wealth could be as damaging to the soul as poverty, she developed a philosophy of sufficiency grounded in the notion that “what you appreciate appreciates.”

Twist reminds us that money is our own invention with a 3,500-year history of facilitating the exchange of goods and services. But, she points out, “somewhere along the way, the power we gave money outstripped its original utilitarian role.” To refocus on the value we are creating in relationship with one another is to disarm three toxic myths of scarcity that Twist contends now dominate our cultural assumptions about money and influence our behavior:

  • Myth #1: “There’s Not Enough…generates a fear that drives us to make sure that we’re not the person, or our loved ones aren’t the people, who get crushed, marginalized, or left out.”
  • Myth #2: “More is Better…drives a competitive culture of accumulation, acquisition, and greed that only heightens fears and quickens the pace of the race.”
  • Myth #3: “That’s Just the Way it is…makes us feel hopeless, helpless, and cynical” about addressing the inequities that we’ve learned to tolerate and perpetuate.

In the years since The Soul of Money was published, Twist has done much to move the world from this “economy of fear, consumption, and scarcity, to an economy of sufficiency, sustainability, and generosity.” She founded the Soul of Money Institute and more recently helped establish the Global Sufficiency Network, both organizations that promote a radical shift in our definition of prosperity.

So, do I feel like a dope for wanting to buy a lottery ticket? Not necessarily; it’s a transaction that prompts me to stop and think seriously about my relationship with money—this commodity that has so much power to create anxiety in my life—and ask myself the question: When would I know that I had enough?


December 31, 2010 2 comments

Dignity, a book of photographs by Dana GlucksteinAmong the many delights under the Christmas tree this year was a beautiful book of photographs that my son received from his Aunt Clare. Called Dignity, the book celebrates both the fiftieth anniversary of Amnesty International and the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples adopted in 2007.

As I browsed through the striking images of indigenous people from all over the world, I was curious about why photographer Dana Gluckstein had opted to identify her subjects not by name, but by tribal affiliation, location, and date. If this was a book about dignity, I wondered, wouldn’t it be important to recognize these individuals’ unique identities?

Finding the subjects’ names in the artist’s acknowledgments toward the back of the book, I realized that respect for the individual was indeed one of Gluckstein’s aims. But more important for this project was illuminating the dignity these people express by representing something larger than themselves; something that the book invites us all to be part of. Archbishop Desmond Tutu captures this invitation in his foreword:

We must be grateful to those who remind us of our common bond. The work of Dana Gluckstein embodies ubuntu. It helps us to truly see, not just appearances, but essences, to see as God sees us, not just the physical form, but also the luminous soul that shines through us. Pick up this glorious book and look into the eyes of your relatives, those distant cousins you have not seen in so many years, for whom your heart ached without knowing. Greet each other again, with the love and healing that comes with reunion, and know that in protecting their rights and their way of life, you protect the wellbeing of us all and the future we share, for we are all, every one of us, precious members of the family of earth.

It took decades for indigenous activists to persuade the member countries of the UN to adopt the 2007 Declaration (and there were some notable holdouts, including the US and Canada, who have since agreed to review their positions on the matter). The Declaration affirms Indigenous Peoples’ equal sovereignty with other Nations regarding respect for their sacred places, languages, and ways of life.

Amnesty International Executive Director Larry Cox observes in his epilogue, “What we can learn from the indigenous leaders who labored so long to bring forth an international declaration is that when people have a sense of their own dignity, they are unstoppable.”

I would add that when people have a sense of their own dignity, they are better able to see the dignity in others. Here at the start of a new year, what might you do to see and celebrate your own dignity?