Reflections on the Systems Thinking/Leadership workshop at MIT Sloan.

As part of my recent trip to Boston, I attended a Leadership/systems thinking workshop at MIT taught by Peter Senge. The goal of that workshop was to pair teams of Leadership Lab (or “L-lab”) students with various organizations of different sizes and scopes. Among the organizations represented were Caterpillar, West Elm, and OCP. This arrangement had a dual purpose: to assist these organizations in developing their sustainability initiatives through systems thinking, and to provide real-life learning opportunities and challenges for the students of L-lab.

I went as a part of NOS (Noroeste Sustentable), a small NGO based in La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico. My role as an attendee was primarily to provide support to Alejandro Robles, the organization’s director. This was, of course, an amazing opportunity to learn about systems thinking from Peter Senge. But I also went with “half an eye”—as I told one of the instructors—towards learning about the Leadership MBA they offer at MIT Sloan (and PhD opportunities, as well).

Systems thinking is a framework for thought and leadership developed from the multidisciplinary approach to engineering provided by systems dynamics. Systems dynamics quantitatively and qualitatively studies the components of physical systems, their interactions, and tries to model and predict otherwise unpredictable behaviors that occur from the complexity of the interactions involved. Systems thinking takes this discipline and and focuses on teaching people how to view the world in terms of a complex set of interactions, which are predominantly hidden and inaccessible to our firsthand experience.

In order to illustrate this, systems thinking uses the “iceberg model,” which is a metaphor for the hidden interactions that create the events, which are only superficial manifestations of deeper patterns of behavior, which are in turn manifestations of the deeper systemic structure that creates these recurring patterns and those seemingly unrelated events.


The foremost reason it is important to achieve systemic thought (and perceive the underlying structure) is to be able to consciously grasp that things are not as they seem: because events are rooted in patterns of behavior, it is not enough to simply try to prevent these events from happening; one must look at what behaviors are in place for them to happen. Similarly, these behaviors are rooted in a particular systemic structure: if, for example, a company has always been held together by fear, a new and well-meaning CEO will be forced to instill fear just to keep the company together. The systemic structure in its present iteration disallows any other behavior patterns. However, it is only by looking at this system’s structure and understanding its raison d’etre—and its function—that we will be in a position to change it.

The workshop brought in representatives from these companies to give them a crash course in systems thinking. They need to have a grasp of what framework the student teams will be operating from, its benefits, and how it does what it does. One of the challenges that these multinational companies face is that the internal and external systemic structures that they have built are highly resistant to change. Because change always brings a degree of uncertainty—which is what entrenched systemic structures most fear—these representatives must function not only as guides but also as advocates for these MIT teams, who are basically agents of change.

One of the particulars of systems thinking that strikes many people as odd, is that it relies heavily on empathy, self-knowledge, vision—all properties which are typically attributed to “spirtiual pursuits.” Alejandro mentioned to me that Peter Senge once said:

“My students find that the concepts I teach are either too obvious or too esoteric.”

This becomes even more odd when you consider that systems thinking was developed as a business management discipline. From an orthodox perspective of what “business management” means, the leading discipline for becoming a good manager should be all hard numbers and no-nonsense people-wrangling. But it’s not. After all, a business, a company, a corporation, is nothing more and nothing less than a social system entangled with mechanical, economic, and biological systems. A discipline that teaches people how to think not in terms of event and assigning blame, but in terms of how to manage the deep systemic structure that creates the patterns of behavior that leads to events that necessitate blame, will allow the disciple (or rather, the master) to eliminate these events altogether.

Which is why systems thinking inevitably leans towards sustainability. It is a self-evident truth that every single company, corporation, and human social system is completely dependent on the biosphere. As Mark McElroy, the director of the Center For Sustainable Organizations said in a recent conference I went to:

“Companies are wholly-owned subsidiaries of the environment.”

Once you start looking at the underlying systemic structure, and by force of habit you begin linking system after system in your mind, it is inevitable to come to the conclusion that all roads lead to Rome. And Rome, in this case, is a sustainable future. That is why every single team of these MIT leadership students are helping an organization with their sustainability initiatives. It is anathemic to systems thinking to do otherwise. You literally can’t do systems thinking and not fall towards sustainability as the ultimate answer. If you somehow wormed your way out of this reality, well, you’ve become engaged in a convincing but self-deceptive (and paltry) rehearsal of systems thinking—in which case you’ve rendered this visionary discipline de-clawed by the mother of all ironies.

But the core of this discipline isn’t just to become a great thinker—it’s about becoming an agent of systemic change. And the way to do that is through a multitude of contemplative and dialectic exercises. We can’t see the underlying systemic structure in our social systems without first seeing it in ourselves. We have to see how our own patterns of behavior contribute to events, and where we fall into the underlying systemic structure. In effect, that’s the key: when someone that is part of system X becomes a systems thinker (in action as well as thought), the system inevitably begins to change and express features of systemic thought.

That’s the goal of the MIT Leadership lab, and dare I say, of Peter Senge himself. The endgame here is to populate this society with systems thinkers, until change stops being a possibility and becomes an inevitability. The systemic structure of our society and our institutions will not be able to help but reflect that it is composed of more and more systems thinkers—and when there are enough of us, we will reach a tipping point, and be confronted with the power of emergence: the social, political, and economic systems will begin to exhibit new behaviors and unforeseen properties, all of which contribute and reinforce the continued existence of the biosphere, and of humanity itself.

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