System Archetypes? LO6329

Richard Karash (
Sun, 31 Mar 1996 12:58:37 -0500 (EST)

Replying to LO6207 --

On 24 Mar 1996, Alan Mossman wrote:

> Prejudice, Pre-conceptions and Archetypes
> ...could it be dangerous to go looking
> for them ? I believe it could be.
> Why ? Because it increases the tendency to go looking for something which
> fits one of these pre-conceptions - if this is the approach taken it
> reduces the understanding of the system. If we choose to interact using
> an archetypal concept of the system rather than our map (=concept) of the
> system as we and our clients see it our predictive power will be reduced,
> our actions could be dangerous.
> I believe that it is important to look at and understand the system(s)
> that are in play in an organisation. This means understanding the
> actuality of the system (not how it compares to x or y archetype...
> We all abhor prejudice. I wonder if going on an archetype hunt (c.f.
> sussing out what system(s) are in play) is an example of prejudiced
> consulting. Once you know what systems are in play why would you want to
> attach a label to it that, at best, only fits where it touches ?

This is an excellent question, and a good topic to ponder. Clearly one
could go astray and fall into the "tool in search of a problem" syndrome.
Or, as someone said, "When the only tool you have is a hammer, all things
in front of you start looking more and more like a nails..."

I'm very comfortable that learning the systems archetypes is a positive
step, and here's why I'm comfortable. As I see things...

1) Everyone starts with a limited set of models and pre-conceptions in
their head. These shape the view of whatever they see in the world. We
can't escape this. It's not that we are pure before learning the
archetypes and biased afterwards. It's a question of *what* biases we
have, and whether it's a rich set or a narrow set. I believe that learning
the archetypes gives us a richer set that will be less limiting. I feel
this quite strongly because the systems thinking view of the world
(structure causes behavior patterns) is quite different from most people's
view of the world. My evidence for this is that people reading Senge's
book or attending a course find the systems thinking paradigm refreshing,
new, different, and often challenging.

My favorite participant quote (actually from a group of fledgling
instructors I was coaching) is, "These darn loops are *everywhere*!... and
we didn't see them before!"

To complete #1, I'll say again that it would be very dangerous to start
to think of the systems archetypes as the *exclusive* way of looking at
the world; in that case, I would share your concerns.

2) At a higher level of mastery of this discipline, my colleagues and I
find that the system archetypes are still relevant. In our deepest
reflections, we find that we tend to make our models of new situations by
adopting a model from another situation, and adapting it to fit. A higher
skill level would be indicated by a "better fit" of the model chosen, more
rigorous testing of whether it really fits or not, and a better adaptation
to the current situation. I am speaking now of conversations with people
of very high skill in systems thinking/ system-dynamics modeling. One
said, "I got better and better at this as I accumulated more cases in my
mind that I could refer to, more cases for pattern matching."

This view is at odds with a view expressed by some that the systems
archetypes are a beginners' tool, just training wheels for something
ahead (usually seen as computer simulation with fewer constraints on the
ability to represent the current situation).

One of my favorite books which supports my view is a classic by G. Polya,
a math professor at Stanford, _How to Solve it_, Princeton Univ. Press,
1945. Polya says that in mathematics, even at the very highest levels, we
solve new problems by referencing a similar previously solved problem and
then adapting the earlier line to deal with the new case.

Following Polya and my line of thinking, then increased proficiency comes
in large part from internalizing and becoming intimate with a larger
library of cases. And by increasing our skills in effective adaptation
and testing.

So, finally, in reply to your very valid concerns about use of the
archetypes, I think people start with a set of archetypes already (usually
un-acknowledged) and practicing Senge's system archetypes can enrich their
ability to see things in the world. When the new instructor says, "These
darn loops are everywhere!", it indicates to me that we are building a new
"organ of perception", an ability to perceive things that people otherwise
are not very able to perceive.

To me the determinants of skillfulness are 1) the richness of the library
of intimately known cases, and 2) skill in adapting and testing in real

Senge says that becoming a learning organization involves Aspiration,
Reflection (indivually and jointly), and dealing with Complexity; that
even if we have great aspirations and good reflection skills, we won't
get far unless we can understand our complex world. I think the issues
you are raising are very important in building skills to understand our
complex world, and I welcome the dialogue you've started.

Let's see what others want to add on this...


Richard Karash ("Rick") | <> Speaker, Facilitator, Trainer | email: "Towards learning organizations" | Host for Learning-Org Mailing List (617)227-0106, fax (617)523-3839 | <>

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