Change and Systems Thinking: Down the Rabbit Hole

We like precision. We like to know starkly and precisely where things end and begin, so we can draw the boundaries of this and tell it apart from that. Language depends on it, so does science. We distinguish key from keyboard, petal from flower, word from sentence. Working at the human scales of granularity is natural to us; we do it all the time without thinking too much.

Systems thinking says a system is a set of interrelated components with unique relationships, such that the system would cease to exist if a component was removed. Thus, a computer is a system while a pile of sand is not: remove some sand and you still have a pile of sand; remove a component and you no longer have a computer.

The key benefit of systems thinking is its emphasis on interrelatedness. Change one part and the whole system, including its other parts, will also change. A human system will usually change to maintain its homeostasis. Thus, departments of a company are interrelated: problems arise in sales due to subtle dysfunctions in marketing and research. An errant child’s bad behaviour is an adaptation to mom and dad’s unconscious relationship woes. To fix these things, we can’t work only with the problematic piece – the deeper problematic dynamic will crop up elsewhere. Piecemeal doesn't work: we have to take a systemic perspective, work with things in parallel, holistically, acknowledging the complexity of relationships in the system.

Family psychologists and management consultants love this stuff, and rightly so. It’s tremendously helpful. My present ramble is for those less devoted to pragmatism, however, and more willing to go where contemplation might lead.

Take me, Patrick, as a system with parts in unique relationship. Despite the slow and thorough purge of my body’s atoms that’s happened several times over my 31 years, at a coarser, social level of granularity my system has shown continuity. Early childhood experiences continue to inform present-day behaviour. My coarser components are broadly the same: brain, liver, heart and bones just larger than they were at age one.

Daily, my food digests and new proteins constitute my body. I breathe out and my blood changes in oxygen saturation (my cells store only enough fuel to survive the next five seconds, trust my bloodstream to replenish them constantly, give no thought to the morrow). Thoughts in my mind arise and cease, like leaves through a pool in a fast-flowing river. "I" exist only as an approximate locus of constant change. The Patrick who starts this sentence is not the same one who types the full stop. So where is the system?

Bringers of cellular nom-noms

Moment to moment, my system changes, and it’s a matter of perspective and convention whether each change is thought to bring quick death-and-rebirth (my discontinuous self made up of still, separate frames of experience succeeding each other in this phenomenological cinema), or the smooth persistence of the same system in a different mode. Helpfully, in the concept of a system we begin to make a polarity of what was formerly a dichotomous distinction between entity (static, instantiated thing) and process (fluid interaction with no fixed state).

It’s only in the broadest, most conventional sense of reality that entities exist and systems endure. Refine your granularity and they disappear completely: instead there’s a shadowy entity in constant subatomic flux, like the ghosts that play on the screen of a detuned television. Quark in, quark out: these no-things rearrange, there’s no instant for us to point and say, “Look! A system!” Zoom out to a more human scale and the systems are back, white rabbits from our conceptual hats, blinking in the warm light of consensus reality.

Our capacity to conceive of a system depends on the scope at which we happen to think. With too precise a definition, no system ever endures because the flux of its constituents violates the boundary conditions of its definition. Too loose a definition and no system can be talked about because its boundaries can’t quite be ascertained. The sweet spot is a vaguely defined, consensual middle-earth, subject to an implicit constraint on granularity and analysis that allows the imputations of systems thinking. With the concept of a cup, we turn an unparticularised emptiness (for to call it a wash of subatomic stuff is to reify that) into something that holds hot coffee – office workers rejoice! The trick, it seems, is not to look too closely.

A bicycle in name only

To be clear, there’s nothing false about this state of affairs. It’s true for where we’re at, and conventional truth is still true. The only thing it obscures is the fact that it’s just a convention – and at other scales, just other conventions. No ontologically reliable depths lurking elsewhere. That’s the human realm.

The organizational insights that can be drawn from this philosophy, to be sure, are limited in the present day. In coaching, however, it may have practical upshots. Stay tuned (or detuned), because that’s a discussion for another time.