System Interventionist Mindsets

To summarize how observing the behaviour of complex systems might inform our actions and responses, I am developing the following table as a reference. This is tentative. If we have learned anything so far, it must be a critical weariness of silver bullet solutions and easy, push-button, ‘if this then that’ procedures.. Instead, the intent of this chart is to begin imagining what kinds of attitudes, priorities, and values that might be exhibited by effective leaders in nonlinear circumstances.

Generalities we observe in complexity… Paradigms for working in complexity…
Sustained disequilibrium – a self-organizing state between utter chaos and inert deadlock. “How do we avoid getting trapped by the seduction of order?”1 Absolute ‘stability’ is death.
Fluid – always in a state of perpetual transformation, evolution, and adaptation. “We can’t control systems or figure them out. But we can dance with them!”2
Unpredictable – impossible to fully model final outcome; no inherent optimal result. “Prediction is for chumps.”3 Every plan has an unknown and infinite number of blindspots.
Nonlinear – a successful model or approach today is not guaranteed to make any coherent sense tomorrow. “Evolutionary design is healthier than visionary design.”4 Think: adaptive, iterative, developmental. Aim for indefinite ’fail safe’ experimentation.
Interconnected and independent – every part of the network influences every other part of the network. “Distribute cognition/sense-making within networks”5 and “See everything as being in relationship.”6 Dialogue is the only way to co-create understanding.
Dynamic – relationships between nodes are just as important as the nodes themselves. “Collective clarity of purpose is the invisible leader.”7

  1. Corrigan, Chris. (2016). Chaordic Stepping Stones. 

  2. Meadows, Donella. (2004). Dancing with Systems. Timeline. Issue 74, March 2004. 

  3. Case, Nicky. Seeing Whole Systems. Presentation at the Longnow Foundation (Monday August 7, 2017)

  4. Brand, Stewart. (1995). How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built. Penguin. 

  5. Snowden, Dave. (2014). Thinking simply, in context. 

  6. Robinson, Cassie. (2017). Of The Network. 

  7. Widely attributed to Mary Parker Follett, but I have not been able to find an exact reference for this quotation. 

Cite this page:
Shelley, James. (2020). 'System Interventionist Mindsets' (in System Thinker Notebook). Originally published on August 5, 2020. Accessed on September 29, 2020. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permalink:
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This page is currently a subsection of 'Leadership in Complex Systems' in the System Thinker Notebook manuscript. Structure and document location subject to change. Use as permanent identifier for this document if linking externally.

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