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Connecting Systems Thinking and Organizational Learning

Adapted from materials developed by Paul Roback, Ozaukee County UW-Extension and Gerry Campbell, UW-Madison/UW-Extension

Mary Kluz Community Resource Development Marathon County UW-Extension

Early Wisconsin Systems Thinkers

"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe." ~John Muir

Muir, John. 1911. My First Summer in the Sierra (Boston: Houghton Mifflin).

Early Wisconsin Systems Thinkers

All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in that community, but his ethics prompt him also to cooperate (perhaps in order that there may be a place to compete for). ~Aldo Leopold
The Land Ethic, Leopold, Aldo. 1949. A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There. Oxford University Press, New York.

Connecting Systems Thinking & Organizational Learning

What is a System?
a regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming a unified whole (Merriam-Webster) Examples:
thermodynamic system digestive system heating system capitalist system

Where do we find Systems?


Characteristics of a System
A systems parts must all be present to carry out its purpose optimally A systems parts must be arranged in a specific way for the system to carry out its purpose Systems have specific purposes within larger systems

Characteristics of a System: Continued

Systems maintain their stability through fluctuations and adjustments Systems have feedback- the transmission and return of information

Why is it important to look at ________ as a system?

From our seat on the train, things look good until we stick our head out the window. It pays to stop and look out the window to look at the entire system. Systems thinking helps us do that.

We each have access to a small piece of the whole picture.

A poem by Rumi
(translated by Coleman Barks) ELEPHANT IN THE DARK Some Hindus have an elephant to show. No one here has ever seen an elephant. They bring it at night to a dark room. One by one, we go in the dark and come out Saying how we experience the animal. One of us happens to touch the trunk. A water-pipe kind of creature. Another, the ear. A very strong, always moving back and forth, fan-animal. Another, the leg. I find it still, Like a column on a temple. Another touches the curved back. A leathery throne. Another, the cleverest, feels the tusk. A rounded sword made of porcelain. Hes proud of his description. Each of us touches one place And understands the whole in that way. The palm and the fingers feeling in the dark are how the senses explore the reality of the elephant. If each of us held a candle there, and if we went it together, we could see it.

Systems thinking is learning how to see the whole!

There are risks in being unaware of interconnectedness. Actions we take today may have unintended but avoidable consequences tomorrow or 3 years from now. Understanding the system uncovers some of the potential consequences.

Real systemic solutions are rarely as simple as they first appear!

Once upon a time there was a rug merchant who saw that his most beautiful carpet had a large bump in its center. He stepped on the bump to flatten it outand succeeded. But the bump reappeared in a new spot not far away. He jumped on the bump again, and it disappearedfor a moment, until it emerged once more in a new place. Again and again he jumped, scuffing and mangling the rug in his frustration, until finally he lifted one corner of the carpet and an angry snake slithered out.

Rugs and snakes are fine, but

What are organizations doing today that are creating more headaches for the future, even as that action seems the solution for today? Are some of the actions creating angry snakes in other parts of the system?

Why use systems thinking?

We live in a complex and changing world. Systems thinking helps people identify patterns and tame the complexity. Systems thinking allows people to find leverage points: places in the system to intervene in order to create and sustain positive, long term change.

Systems ideas have become part of our language

Industrial Ecology Integrated Pest Management Environmental Management Systems Holistic Farm Management Sustainable Agriculture Sustainable forest management Recycling Environmental footprint Networking Chaos Theory Butterfly Effect

Applying systems thinking

The organizations in which we work and the communities in which we live are systems. To help people understand the interconnectedness, an organization can practice the disciplines of a learning organization.

Learning Organizations
are organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.
Peter Senge: http://www.infed.org/thinkers/senge.htm

5 Disciplines of the Learning Organization

Core Learning Capabilities For Working Teams

ASPIRATION Personal Mastery Shared Vision



Senge, Peter, 1990. The Fifth Discipline. The art and practice of the learning organization, London: Random House.

Personal Mastery The significance of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, focusing our energies, developing patience, and seeing reality objectively.

Shared Vision The "picture of the future." A shared vision is intuitive and instinctive; it's not something that's learned by rote. It is also a collective experience--it's the cumulative total of each participant's personal vision.

Team Learning Any group's collective IQ will always be much higher than an individual's IQ. The only way to begin building group IQ is to open the channels of communication within the group and start talking to one another.

Mental Models Deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, and even pictures or images that influence how we understand the world.

exploring our mental models:

Learn to Look Below the Surface to see the Entire Iceberg!

What just happened?


Whats been happening? Have we seen this before?


What are the forces at play contributing to these patterns? What about our thinking allows this situation to persist?

Mental Models:

Example of the Iceberg Model



Obesity rates are rising substantially in the

Exercise is less frequent. We snack throughout the day. Consumption of sugar through soft drinks has risen dramatically. Food is within easy reach. Food marketing is a big business. Physical environment does not encourage physical activity. Overeating is not a serious health threat. Obesity is a matter of personal responsibility. The physical environment can not change.



Mental Models:

Where are the icebergs in your community?