The concept of Systems

System is a set of elements that combine their action to perform a higher order action than the one that could be performed by any individual element or to achieve a higher order objective than the one that any individual element could achieve on its own. Almost everything in the world is a system and at the same time an element of a higher order system.

A chemical compound is a system since individual chemical elements are combined to perform a higher order action and/or achieve a higher order objective than it would be possible for any individual element. A human being is a system since its elements, i.e. the variety of human organs, are combined together to perform a higher order action and or achieve a higher order objective. An organization is also a system since again its individual elements, i.e. assets, employees and intangible assets, are combined together in order to perform a higher order action than any individual element could perform on its own and/or to achieve a higher order objective than could be achieved by any individual element on its own. Society and the earth are also systems, since the same characteristic of combined individual elements applies.

As we can observe every system is also an element of a higher order system. A chemical compound is an element of a human system. A human is an element in an organization’s system or in the society’s system. A society and an organization are both parts of the earth system. The earth as a system is on its own turn an element in the universe system and so on. A very important implication of this fractal formation of our world is that the first thing we need to identify is what is the exact system at hand to work on.

To use again a metaphor, we first need to identify which is the tree, which is the forest, which is the animal niche that lives in the forest and with which one of these systems we actually want to work with.

The decision about which system we want to work with depends on what we are trying to achieve. Consequently, in the above metaphor, if we want to learn how to transform wood to paper we will chose the tree, if we want to learn how much paper we can produce from the trees that exist in our land we will need to chose the forest system to work on and if we want to learn if our paper manufacture will cause any consequences to the animal niche that lives in that forest, we will need to chose the animal niche system. Even though the forest as a system includes the tree system as an element and the animal niche system includes the forest which includes the tree as its element, it is really important to start by identifying the system we are interested in.

The second step, is to identify the individual elements of the system we will work with and the third step is to identify the connections among them. The best way to achieve the second and the third steps, is through a system map and we will learn an easy way to draw system maps in Chapter x. For the time being, it is important to understand that it is crucial to take those three steps before we go into any decision or action, since it is the clear system map that we will create during those steps which will direct us to the most effective and efficient decision and action.

It is only through a clear system map that we can identify the leverage point, that is the exact point and way to intervene to the system in order to achieve what we want in the most efficient and effective manner, e.g. solve a problem or respond to a failure fast, successfully and with minimum use of resources. Organizational Learning’s and Systems Thinking’s value is all about these leverage points.

All three steps are equally crucial. If we don’t manage to identify the right system, we might be “fighting miles” like Don Quixote. If we don’t manage to identify all the elements existing in the system we might cause serious problems not only to those elements but through them to the whole system. If we don’t manage to identify all the connections and their nature among the various elements of the system we might even cause disaster.

A good example to understand the level of importance that identifying all the elements and all their connections has, will become apparent if we do a comparative analysis of two simple systems: graphite and diamond.

They are both two natural systems composed by elements of carbon (C ). The chemical formula for both graphite and diamond is C (i.e carbon). The only structural differentiating factor between them is one more connection between the carbon molecules! In graphite, each Carbon molecule has three connections with three other carbon molecules while in diamond the carbon molecule has four connections with four other carbon molecules. Systemically, the only difference between graphite and diamond is one additional bond/connection among the carbon elements. And yet, that single additional connection, defines whether the observable material/expression (or event) will be a diamond or a graphite!

To show the difference, we could represent a graphite like C-(3)C while the diamond like C- (4)C. If you would like to see the actual picture, including in a 3D format, visit: http://www.avogadro.co.uk/structure/chemstruc/network/g-molecular.htm

Consequently we need to pay unlimited attention to all the elements and connections when we are exploring a system. If we miss even one connection, we might be …. looking at a graphite instead of a diamond!

On the other hand, if the system is mapped carefully and fully enough, we might discover that simply by creating one additional connection among the already existing elements we can transform a graphite into a diamond. This is the meaning/value of leverage points; minimum action/intervention for maximum use of potential (/ for maximum results).

From this diamond-graphite example, you can extract/conclude/understand the most fundamental principle of Organizational Learning and Systems Thinking (that we will explore further in a while): “System drives behavior” (Senge, 1990 and Meadows, 1982 and 2009). To get the full picture of this fundamental principle we will need to state: System drives behavior, and behavior creates observable reality (=observable event).

What do I need to remember (includes parts explored in consequent chapters)?

– there are natural and artificial systems, that interconnect in a web which composes our experienced reality (/within which we experience our reality)
– part of this web is not in harmony with humanity’s concurrent needs, since the systemic structure(s) are created according to the mental models and artifacts existing at the time when the respective systemic structure was initially put in place, as we will see in detail in the next section of this book. As the historical context that generated those mental models and artifact has radically changed, the structures that served the needs within the older historical context can not serve the needs created within our current one.
– humans, as the creators of the artificial systems of the web, can change them in order to align them with our concurrent historical context and needs
– As we will see in detail in the next section, through the Organizational Learning dynamics, the systems that are mis-aligned with the concurrent historical context and its deriving needs, do change in an efficient, effective as well as timely manner. We will explore an integrative evolution model, including Scappens and Burns framework, Forester’s spiral evolution and Maturana’s autopoiesis concept, that shows exactly how these dynamics work, and we will see that Organizational Learning, if unguided by a mindful leader, brings forth that change anyway but with a time delay. Humans, not only can but should assume responsibility and consequently leadership in order to accelerate the Organizational Learning dynamics within their sphere of influence or jurisdiction (when it comes to work environments) so that re-alignment (re-harmonization) with the concurrent historical context and its deriving needs can be achieved, so that wellbeing and sustainability can be restored.
– This book provides you with the tools to assume responsibility and exercise/execute that mindful leadership.
– The first tool, is the background you need to re-member before any other tool is employed at any time.
– The background, to connect OL and ST with the specific situation at hand, can be meaningfully identified through the 3 background steps:
a. Identify the system of intervention (Ask: 1. what problem am I trying to solve? 2. What do I want to achieve by solving this problem? 3. What is the system that holds the potential to bring forth that which I want to achieve -identified through Q2, if I meaningfully intervene? )
b. Identify the elements of the system you chose through the first step and its three key questions. Ask: Which are the elements that compose the system that I identified? Then take a paper, draw at the middle of the paper a circle and write within the circle the name of the system you identified as the optimal intervention location. Start drawing the circles and the names of the system’s elements on the paper around the central circle. The order of the elements (peripheral circles) is not important. (What might be further facilitating for you, it is to place the elements in a way that you could identify the first-order (or first-tier) elements, the second-order (second-tier) ones etc. This could be done by placing the circles of the elements in a pattern that would reflect a first cycle homocentric to the name of the system, a second cycle homocentric to the system’s name etc.)
c. Identify the nature/quality of the connections among all the elements of the system. Draw a line for every direct connection you can identify, including the connection lines to the name of the system. If you have followed the pattern of the levels (or orders) of the elements, you will usually need to connect the central circle that holds the name of your system at hand, only with the first tier elements. Since, usually, the second-tier elements are those that connect to the system through their connection to the first-tier ones. Whether you put an arrow or not and in which end of the connection you will place the arrow in case you chose to, is not important. Remember, that any existing connection is a two-ways connection; this means that regardless of which end of the connection will change, the other end will be respectively influenced to change as well. This is the meaning behind the terms interrelation and interconnection. You can imagine the connections as levers (or old type of weighting mechanism). If you intervene at the weight existing on one side of that weighing mechanism or lever, you will inevitably change the position (height) of the other end of that lever too. However, what is important, is to identify the qualities (or the nature) of that connection. There are two kinds (or qualities) of connections: reinforcing or balancing. In the same way that there are only two possible actions on a lever (or old weighing mechanism): you can either balance it by adding or subtracting weight from one end of the lever, or you can reinforce (=uplift) one of its sides again by adding or subtracting weight in one of its ends/sides. (There is of course a third possibility: to destroy the lever. This means that you have carefully contemplated the whole process of intervention through the OL and ST tools existing in this book, and you have identified that the existing element and/or connection is a. harmful to the system and b. can not be repaired. In that case you might choose to eliminate that element from the system which means that you will cut the connection, or in other words destroy the specific lever. Several times, this is indeed the wisest action and/or solution, however keep in mind that this is a radical intervention at the systemic structure of the system and very careful examination of the situation and all its implications before any such action is taken, is highly recommended.) To identify the quality of the connection ask: What is the function/objective of the element/system existing on the one side of the connection (e.g. A) in respect to the element/system at the other side of the lever/connection (e.g.B)? Is the function/purpose of A intended to limit in some way the function/purpose of element B? If the answer is yes, then you have a balancing connection (called also balancing loop) that limits somehow the element B in order to bring it back to a predetermined position or balance. Is the function of element/system A intended to reinforce the function/purpose of element/system B? If the answer to this explanatory question is yes, then you have a reinforcing connection (called also reinforcing loop) that provides the necessary energy (or information) to the system/element at the other side in order for it to further evolve. As the system/element evolves under the guidance of its internal/intrinsic dynamics, it will eventually (when it will conclude this stage of evolution) reach a balance. The difference is that the balance is not pre-determined and that every time that this lever acts the position of the new balance established is different from any previous one. Leading the system/element at the other side of the connection to establish either a pre-determined or a self-organized/evolving balance is the differentiating quality among the two types of connections. Mark the type of each connection with an R for reinforcing or a B for balancing (or another way that serves you best).
– These steps will provide you with the necessary background and place you at the starting point of the change initiative that you wish for. The background, is crucial for the leader of the initiative who needs to continuously adjust the course/direction of the effort/project that will reveal itself through the use of the following tools. It can be skipped/waived for the other members of the team that will apply the following tools in case the leader is willing to be part of that team, since only in this way the action plan that will be developed through those following tools can be continuously controlled against the specifications that will be revealed by this background process. This background process will provide you with a Systemic Structure Map which reveals the specifications of the system at its current form. (note that this is not the same with the System Action Map that we will explore on a later chapter). These specifications are not meant for you to match as in the conventional control process of Operations Management. They are meant to a. place you (and consequently your team) at the right starting point of a change initiative, project or problem-solving process and b. afterwards provide you with information/knowledge regarding whether you are going towards the right direction or not and consequently need to adjust something since this Systemic Structure Map can be compared with the System Action Map and consequently critically examine if the actions and interventions identified on the System Action Map are indeed contributing to the actual improvement of the system or not (even through side-effects).

Reference:
Avogadro (n.d.) Diamond and Graphite Covalent Network Structures, Avogadro A-level Chemistry [Online]. Available from: http://www.avogadro.co.uk/structure/chemstruc/network/g-molecular.htm (Accessed 2 September 2011)

Senge, P. (1990) The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. Oxford: Doubleday

Meadows, D. (1982) Whole Earth Models and Systems; Co-evolution Quarterly (2): 98-108

Meadows, D. (2009) Thinking in Systems. London: Earthscan