If you aren’t yet familiar with the term “systems thinking” (particularly as used outside of an engineering context), don’t feel bad. Chances are, though, that if you work in an organizational setting, you might be experiencing some of its effects.

A recent client of mine was hit with it firsthand right before the holidays when his company decided to issue all new titles (or now “component names”) and restructure the physical setup of the office (or now “community”). The phrase “systems thinking” was not used, but its effects were clear: less individualism, more collectivism; parts or components in relation to the whole.

Two Heads Are Better Than One

Systems thinking in its broad sense is a way of analyzing how a system’s parts interrelate and cooperate in the processes of the system. It relies heavily on reinforcing and balancing these processes to create stability, usually through feedback, to evaluate the approach that is most productive to the system. If you were to contrast it with traditional analysis, the traditional method breaks systems down into the separate parts and analyzes/evaluates them individually instead of looking at them collectively and the relationship between the different elements. Systems thinking has been attributed to Jay Forrester from MIT’s Sloan School of Management, who originated the concept in 1956.

One of today’s main proponents of systems thinking is Peter Senge, also at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, who has spoken extensively on how systems thinking should be applied in organizations to move away from highlighting “smart individuals” to “collective intelligence.” According to Prof. Senge, we all operate in “webs of interdependence” aka “systems.” For instance, we have our family, our community, our company.

And within these systems, we have complex problems that individually we cannot seem to solve, for various reasons, but that affect all of us. Thus, by bringing together our “collective,” we can “triangulate” to come together to try to resolve the problem. Even more so, instead of just solving problems, we can also be a part of the creative process…moving from a reactive role into a proactive one.

The Dawning of a New Age

Essentially, the sky’s the limit in systems thinking, thanks to the meeting of collective minds all energized around the same vision. Gone are the days of the need for a hero or an agreed-upon truth. And it goes much further beyond how companies operate into other social spheres, such as education and global citizenship, and into a deeper philosophical realm.

I mean, who needs a savior when you can have a collective…right?

Opponents argue that there are undercurrents of “group think” and socialist political agendas at work here, claims that systems thinkers categorically deny (although, historically, collective action thinking, if not systems thinking specifically, has had socialist roots).

Undoubtedly, it is hard to argue against the value of collective minds coming together to create and resolve complex issues. And it would be nice to envision a work environment where the contribution of each team member was brought into balance with the whole “system” for the greater good.

But the overall philosophy of systems thinking does lend itself to some interesting questions:

  • Don’t we still need “smart individuals” to make up the “collective”? It seems, then, that individualism would still have value, and why is recognizing that individualism such a threat to the collective?
  • Is heroism bad? After all, don’t heroic leaders inspire and build that energy needed to sustain the collective?
  • What do we do about ambition? Personal achievement? Is it wrong to want that? Can you really subdue it anyway, and if so, how?
  • What happens to the unconverted? The collective might allow for different viewpoints, but it relies on a common purpose.
  • Is the creative process always better when done in a collective sense?
  • Solving one social problem as a collective could lead to others. After all, the atomic bomb was invented in a collective that thought it was working for the greater good. Is a collective omniscient?
  • How do you enforce equal effort in a collective? Anyone who has ever worked in a team environment knows the difficulty in getting all members to put forth the same amount of effort or provide the same amount of talent. What do you do about freeloaders? What type of enforcement would be needed then?
  • Do 100 flawed individuals ever achieve perfection? Even with calculating our corresponding strengths, we still won’t reach 100%. So there are limits. What do you do with the weakest link conundrum?

Communal concepts or “collectives” have come and gone across the ages (like ~3000 of them; there really is nothing “new”)…with a strong emphasis on “gone.” So for systems thinking or collective action to be most effective, it seems it would have to overcome the same issues these other communes have faced: the extreme desire for individualism and the need to implement high-cost social mechanisms to ensure an equal commitment to cooperate.

Otherwise, what started out as a utopian ideal could get real ugly real fast.