Some people told me that my last email I sent last week did end up in their Junk mail folder or did not arrive at all. I’m struggling with some technical issues, which is why this email comes from a different email address than the usual email@example.com. If you have not seen last week’s email, you can read it here (it’s worth it!): On knowing and understanding. You can access all previous emails in my archive.
On to this week’s reflections.
The more I study different systems practices, the more often I come across instances where I notice that the way forward is often opposite to what my cultural/social programming would have me to expect (I interpret the term systems practices very broadly, including ecosystem thinking or holistic thinking and practices like Warm Data, Embodiment and possibly also various spiritual practices). Even the idea of ‘the way forward’ as the better way to go, as I used it in the previous sentence, is actually an idea that is based on my culture’s thinking about progress as being something generally positive (somehow we always seem to need to get somewhere).
In her often-cited piece on leverage points, Donella Meadows quotes Jay Forrester (Meadows 1999:1):
“People know intuitively where leverage points are,” he says. “Time after time I’ve done an analysis of a company, and I’ve figured out a leverage point … Then I’ve gone to the company and discovered that there’s already a lot of attention to that point. Everyone is trying very hard to push it in the wrong direction!” (emphasis in the original)
There are other examples that you can find throughout the literature on systems work. For example that when we ramp up police presence and safety features like fences, cameras, etc. we often feel less secure as a consequence. Or that when you plant monocultures of corps that are bred for the highest yield, you might be more efficient for the moment in harvesting food but over time more and more problems will surface like depletion of the soil, new, mutated pests, food intolerance, etc.
Another great example is shared by Meadows (Meadows 1999:1):
Asked by the Club of Rome to show how major global problems—poverty and hunger, environmental destruction, resource depletion, urban deterioration, unemployment—are related and how they might be solved, Forrester made a computer model and came out with a clear leverage point: Growth. Not only population growth, but economic growth. Growth has costs as well as benefits, but we typically don’t count the costs—among which are poverty and hunger, environmental destruction, and so on— the whole list of problems we are trying to solve with growth! What is needed is much slower growth, and in some cases no growth or negative growth.
The world’s leaders are correctly fixated on economic growth as the answer to virtually all problems, but they’re pushing with all their might in the wrong direction.
A side note, I have to repeat here that I don’t think the concept of leverage points itself is actually very useful in complex living systems, as I have shared before. In reality, change does not happen by finding the one right lever and even if it did exist, there would not only be the ‘right’ and the ‘wrong’ direction to ‘turn’ it. Also, there is no one-way, stable causal relation between the leverage point and the rest of the system - relationships are always both ways. Yet, these are still good examples of how counter-intuitive complex living systems often are.
Talking about causality: An example in my own experience is that living systems are not causal, and yet our intuition constantly entices us to default back to thinking in causal ways. Indeed, I myself struggle to think in another way, its so engrained in our way of thinking. Even if this causal thinking is disguised in a lot of language of complexity and emergence and the diagrams used are not boxes and arrows anymore but circles. I recently looked at such a circle representing a Theory of Change that was intended to defy the linearity of traditional thinking but then I found the words ‘activities,’ ‘outputs,’ ‘outcomes,’ and ‘impact’ in there. These are clearly coming from a linear way of thinking where activities lead to outputs lead to outcomes lead to impact.
Another side note: here again we find ourselves muddled up in language. Possibly ‘thinking’ is not the mode to access the way of knowing that is able to go beyond causal. Which reminds me of a piece by Gregory Bateson that I have already cited before:
Purposive consciousness pulls out, from the total mind, sequences which do not have the loop structure which is characteristic of the whole systemic structure. (Bateson 1972:440)
Or in other words, consciously, we only perceive linear chains of causation biased by our purpose while in reality these chains are just small arcs of larger circles – a phrase Gregory coined and Nora Bateson used as the title of her book (Bateson 2016). Working in living systems requires us to let go of such a limited concept of causation – and maybe find other, complementary ways of engaging with the world than conscious thought only.
Back to the phenomenon of systems thinking being counter-intuitive. Another, very different, example comes from my own journey into my body. While I intuitively would try to observe myself during these practices to evaluate my progress and see if I am doing the exercise ‘right’, whether I am ‘feeling the right things’ and have ‘arrived at an embodied state’, the very act of this self-conscious evaluation thinking puts me in a divided state and back into my head. So embodiment requires surrender to what is, without a purpose and without expectations, without wanting to do ‘it’ right or to achieve anything. What we try to do with the practices is not to achieve a specific state or get somewhere, but to increase our sensitivity to what is.
The ultimate counter-intuitive insight for me is that if we want to change systems like communities and organisations, the intuitive thing would be to do something, implement some actions towards that particular change. Yet in my experience the way we show up has often more influence on the system than what we do – yet this influence is often really hard to pinpoint or measure. This does not mean that we cannot do anything. But the doing might look different to what we are expecting – dare I say: it might look counter-intuitive to it.
Bateson, Gregory. 1972. “Conscious Purpose versus Nature.” In Steps to an Ecology of Mind, by Gregory Bateson. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.
Bateson, Nora. 2016. Small Arcs of Larger Circles: Framing Through Other Patterns. Triarchy Press.
Meadows, Donella. 1999. “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System.” The Sustainability Institute. http://www.donellameadows.org/wp-content/userfiles/Leverage_Points.pdf.
Nora Bateson writing about her father’s work in her Aphanipoiesis paper (Bateson 2021):
My father carefully wrote into his texts an awe for how life keeps life-ing. Not as a dogmatic mystery, but as a scientific rigor, he sculpted his descriptions of systemic process so as to never nick the artery of indescribable, infinitely entangled communication in families, forests, and societies. These careful wordings and observations are easy to miss because they are not spelled out as such, but they are there. If one reads Gregory Bateson for solutions and methodologies, it will not take long to become exasperated and toss his work aside. It is not convenient or easily applicable; this way of seeing eschews the urge to dive into action in explicit ways.
Why have I added this to my Paper Museum? I like this paragraph a lot because it linking to my earlier post I titled “What if… ?” in which I tried to describe a shift in me. A shift from saying that everything that cannot be explained by science cannot exist to asking: What would happen if we acted as if it were true? What is the risk? I think that is what Nora means when she writes “he sculpted his descriptions of systemic process so as to never nick the artery of indescribable.”
Reference: Bateson, Nora. 2021. “Aphanipoiesis.” Journal of the International Society for the Systems Sciences, Proceedings of the 64th Annual Meeting of the ISSS, Virtual.