If you’ve been reading along, you’ll know by now that I spend a lot of my time trying to build the capability of others to think and act in systemic ways.
Systems thinking is not the norm, by any measure, even though there are glimmers of hope. In my last blog, I shared a range of strategies for circumnavigating some of the barriers to embedding systems thinking in large organisations. Those structural barriers matter, without a doubt, but addressing them may not be enough.
Our world, and our brains, are not naturally built for thinking in systemic ways. There are almost certainly limits to our capacity to join the dots, to see the bigger picture, and to comprehend the dynamics and interconnections of an increasingly complex world.
Of course, there are some limits that are actually limits, and others that we create, believe into being, and which can be pushed or dissolved entirely. The trick is knowing which is which.
What are some of these limits?
1. We struggle with uncertainty
The human mind is incredibly averse to uncertainty and ambiguity; from an early age, we respond to uncertainty or lack of clarity by spontaneously generating plausible explanations. What’s more, we hold on to these invented explanations as having intrinsic value of their own. Once we have them, we don’t like to let them go.
We have known for a long time that uncertainty resolution determines how we act. When we can’t immediately gratify our desire to know, we become highly motivated to reach a concrete explanation. That motivation lies at the heart of most other human desires: achievement, affiliation, and power. We want to eliminate the distress of the unknown. When faced with heightened ambiguity and a lack of clear-cut answers, we need to know – and as quickly as possible.
Our desire for certainty is present wherever you look. In science, it appears as Occam’s Razor, which is the idea that the simplest explanation is probably true. And yes, while you it is possible to have a simple theory that solves that one particular problem, if it doesn’t fit into the larger context of a complex world, it probably isn’t the right theory.
In public policy, we search for the ‘silver bullet’, or the one-size-fits-all solution, rather than recognising that all human behaviour is exceptionally context dependent.
Our western legal system is built upon the premise of individual personhood and autonomy, a convenient illusion, but one that helps us create a container to deal with the uncertainty. When we can assign blame and attribute responsibility to individuals and individual acts, we strip away the uncertainty that comes with understanding causation in a complex world.
2. We like to pretend the world is made up of fixed categories
Although the world in which we live is essentially continuous, we experience it as discrete chunks: “strangers” and “acquaintances,” “fiction” and “nonfiction,” “normal” and “perverse.” Categorisation is crucial for cognition and making these kinds of distinctions involves two simultaneous cognitive acts – lumping and splitting. The former entails grouping “similar” things together in a single mental cluster. The latter involves perceiving “different” clusters as separate from one another. Lumping allows us to perceive orange juice as similar to grape juice and Labradors as similar to poodles. Splitting allows us to perceive grape juice as different from wine and dogs as different from wolves.
Lumping and splitting help us set hard conceptual boundaries. But boundaries in a complex world aren’t hard – they’re uncertain, ambiguous, relational, and context dependent.
Fuzzy boundaries are hard work and we’re primed to avoid them. Folklore is full of stories that illustrate the challenge humans have always faced, as they’ve attempted to create hard boundaries in a continuous world. In Norse Mythology, Loki famously made a bet with the dwarf Brok, and wagered his head. He lost in due time the dwarves came to collect. Loki had no problem with giving up his head but insisted they had absolutely no right to take any part of his neck. Everyone concerned discussed the matter; certain parts were obviously head, and certain parts were obviously neck, but neither side could agree exactly where one ended and the other began. So Loki kept his head indefinitely, although his lips were stitched shut as punishment for getting out of the bet with tricky wordplay.
3. Our language and culture shape how we think
While the relationship between language and thought is controversial, recent research has thrown up some interesting findings. There is growing acceptance that the language we speak may bias our attention toward certain parts of the world, reinforce particular cognitive limits, and foster specific ways of processing information.
A powerful example of this phenomena is how eye-witness memory differs depending on the language a witness speaks. Recent research has shown that, strikingly, speakers of different languages remember different things about the same events. Whether or not someone is likely to remember who did what is influenced by how events are normally described in in the particular language spoken.
If the syntax and structure of language affects cognitive processes, it likely has an influence on whether or not people are able to perceive and comprehend the world in a systemic way. This particular connection is yet to be tested but there is enough evidence for a strong hypothesis. Where English is a sequential language (subject-verb-object), which results in a bias toward linear thinking, many indigenous languages – where holistic and non-linear is the norm – are free-word order languages, which is less prone to this kind of bias.
The evidence for the influence of culture is much more of a slam dunk. Research has repeatedly shown that Westerners pay attention primarily to objects, whereas East Asians display pay attention to relationships between objects and the broader environment in which they are embedded.
It’s rampant speculation, of course, but these differences could be influence influenced by long-term cultural differences that are rooted intellectual traditions of ancient Greece and ancient China. Where the Greek intellectual tradition was focused on breaking problems into their constituent parts, the intellectual traditions in ancient China were heavily shaped by Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. These philosophies were holistic in nature which could have contributed to the development of East Asians’ focus on relationships between objects and their context, and to the tendency of explaining events on the basis of these relationships.
Where to from here, then? For most of us, we have been raised in context that values and affirms linear thinking. We think A + B = C. We speak subject-verb-object. The good news though is although it may be unnatural to us, children can learn systems thinking more easily than adults, because they have not yet been as thoroughly initiated into the linear ways of being and seeing that we impose on the world. Each of these cognitive constraints, which work against the use of systems mindset, can be tested.
There are, of course, already many stories of people actively subverting these limits – questioning assumptions and pushing the boundaries of language, culture and cognition. It is more common than you think. Our language is full of metaphors to help us understand the complexity of the world – “the straw that breaks the camel’s back”, “a whole greater than the sum of parts”, “the butterfly effect”. These are all attempts that someone has made, at some points in history, to create a space where they can momentarily confront the uncertainty, interconnectedness, and complexity of the world. The best we can do is try.