Seeing Systems LO5663

Yvonne Hansen (
Tue, 13 Feb 96 14:15:26 CDT

Replying to LO5519 --

Re: Outliners & Systems LO2812 and LO5406, LO5428, LO5519

Kent Myers, Charles Parry, Tobin Quereau, Julie and Doug Seely have posted
on systems, whole systems change and seeing systems. I couldn't agree
more with Doug, and have a few thoughts to share in terms of perception
and visual thinking when it comes to systems.

Kent said
> If you want to represent and understand a system, serial structure is an
unhelpful and premature imposition.

I agree whether the structure is termed serial or the process linear.

Kent went on to say he inserted contextual material in a presentation and
that interesting connections "started bouncing around between the

Identifying context, or environment, and detecting relation and connection
among segments is thinking systemically.

Tobin said
> Many times, it seems to me, the system changes _before_ the people change
> and that is one of the problems we face.

I would ask: What kind of a system - natural, *man* made physical, human
designed abstract, etc.? What specific system or systems do you refer to?
What are components, or subsystems? What and where do you locate the
system boundaries? Who/what is in, who/what is out? What are the inputs,
throughputs, outputs? Who/what changed the system? How much and in what
ways has the system changed? And what specifically are the changes? What
components remained stable? Etc.

Is the problem one of adaptation/learning on the part of people in the
system? Or, one of whole system *design* that those who changed the
system neglected to consider, and which indeed includes people, processes,
hard stuff, soft stuff (i.e., policy, law, culture, etc.)?

Doug said
> In our approach to Whole Systems Understanding . . . a good number of our >
clients make such a transition from simple cause & effect to systems
> thinking, by seeing a visualization of the threads of systems interactions .
. . > in an animated manner.
> we talk about a "big picture".

I believe that systems thinking is in the brain and the eye and the lens
and experience of the beholder. Thinking systemically is the effort to
understand complexity, to bring order to the incomprehensible. Thus,
whole systems change must begin with developing the ability to perceive
systemness and systems concepts. Out of this ability, one can begin to
detect wholes, components, boundaries, relationship and connection, etc.,
then apply systems concepts to the entity under consideration - a
department, a business, a city, an institution, an ecosystem, a knowledge
discipline, something concrete or something abstract.

The intention of the founders of General Systems Theory - Von Bertalanffy,
Rapoport and Boulding - was to identify the underlying relationships
across disciplines, as different as they might appear from one another.
Perceiving relationships within and among systems is essential.

However, when one is learning to think systemically, one faces a
continuous struggle, for the mind wants to return to the comfort and
familiarity of cause-effect thinking. Constant vigilance is required, as
well as awareness of slippage, falling back into analytic, cause-effect,
linear, mechanistic modes of thought, which surround us daily in the forms
of the spoken and written word, of finding the cause of something, of
attributing a state-of-affairs to a pre-existing condition, etc.

We need to be able to flow easily between analysis and synthesis, which
are not mutually exclusive; both are vital to help us make sense of this
complex, often chaotic world. Although we live in an analytic, linear
world, we can begin to think systemically, make statements to others about
our observations of connection and relation among the many aspects of
society, or whatever the topic.

Consider this: You have a camcorder with a zoom lens. In a close-up you
see detail; in a long shot you see the big picture. Analysis takes place
in the close up; it is taking apart in order to understand. But,
remember, everything is part of something larger - an atom is part of a
molecule is part of a cell is part of tissue is part of an organ, etc.
So, it is with this knowledge that you can take your zoom lens and look
closely, or take a broad view and see wholes, multiple, interacting

Systems thinking has played out in two major ways in my life:

In the early 70s I was introduced to systems thinking when I learned team
facilitation OJT in a federally-funded drug and alcohol abuse prevention
that trained community groups in action planning to deal with drug abuse
in their schools. Many of the elements I read of daily in OL Digest were
alive and well back then, and began with developing self-correcting,
problem solving teams out of groups of citizens. The basis and philosophy
for working with teams and for developing a prevention program was systems
thinking, and our expert in drugs education curricula made that clear:
prevention had to include the whole community, not stop at the high

We integrated process awareness, hands-on with charts and markers,
participatory leadership, team building, pre- and post-training visits,
technical assistance, support systems were established that linked staff,
state agencies, teams, etc., into the training design. Most of all, staff
modeled what we sought and walked our talk: Team reps were invited to
daily staff processing meetings. Everyone - director, staff, teams - were
in continuous states of discovery.

Familiar aphorisms that convey systems thinking were continuously
expressed in training and subsequently:
There's no such thing as a free lunch.
You can't do just one thing.
Everything's gotta go somewhere.
What goes around comes around.
And others.

The other way came through my need to think visually and graphically in
order to make sense of the world out there and its multiple, confusing
phenomena. In order to meet my need to think visually, I developed
Graphic ToolsC, six simple shapes and conventions for use. To understand
systems concepts, I developed V.A.S.T.: Visual Approach to Systems
Thinking (in refinement stage), a read-think-do series of infosheets, that
employ Graphic Tools. Using either GT or V.A.S.T., the nature of highly
complex systems can be explored by constructing visual models that
incorporate systems concepts.

Simply, IMHO, a shift in language, a shift that incorporates visual,
graphical thinking, facilitates the ability to think systemically.
Gestalt psychology with its focus on perception and figure-ground, field
theory and visual thinking contribute to the ability to think
systemically. In short, change the language, change the paradigm.


Yvonne Hansen	

email: Consulting in Human Interaction Graphic Facilitation...and more 5400 Freidrich Lane, No. 77, Austin, Texas 78744 (512) 447-0459

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-- (Yvonne Hansen)

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