Joined-Up Thinking Requires Joined-Up Practice

We’re living through a rare thing: a teachable moment. Can a virus teach us about how life really works?

Image by Tumisu/Pixabay
Photograph: Samuel Morazan/Pixabay

Unspoken Rules

Collapse complexity into a binary simplicity. Amplify difference and conflict. Put people into narrow boxes with simple labels and limit wriggle room. Ignore contradiction and ambiguity or treat these as negatives. Rarely take context into account or ask people about their deeper motivations. Don’t try to understand them or make them feel understood. Don’t help opposing sides explore their differences or work through conflict.

Photograph: Robert Jones/Pixabay

The Story of The Machine

We live in an increasingly complex world. In the teeth of climate disruption, biodiversity collapse, the social impacts of stark inequality and the pressures of mass human migration — and now, a viral pandemic — we are arguably in the foothills of a defining phase in our evolution as a species. Our future is neither clear nor certain and whether we successfully navigate this crucible moment will depend on how we think about, talk about and work on complex issues.

Image: Gerd Altman/Pixabay

A Stovepiped World

And that’s precisely what happens. A mechanistic story of how things work determines the approach to almost everything — from economics to education, transport to housing, medicine, farming, food production, media production — and it profoundly affects notions of how to organise, manage and change things.

Image: Gerd Altman/Pixabay

Everything’s connected

The powerful lens of science has long since unravelled the threads of that old story and revealed a deeper truth, something mystics have intuited all along: everything is connected. (Think: Coronavirus. Cancelled sporting and social fixtures. Falling share prices. Ruptured supply chains. Fewer folks ordering Corona beer…) Wherever you look, through a microscope or telescope, you’ll find systems within systems within systems.

The fairy tale of the machine has crashed headlong into the reality of living systems.

Bureaucratic structures and routines render us powerless and when things go wrong the search is on for a single cause or culprit.

Image: Gerd Altman/Pixabay

The Epidemic Beneath the Epidemic

Among my fellow living-systems practitioners, I hear deep frustration at the absence of systems practice everywhere: the UK climate change assemblies focusing on developing policy rather than co-ordinating action; the US donor that’s asking how much food to ship to Africa, not how to work with local people to prevent recurring famine. The focus is on the small picture. The part.

Image: Gerd Altman/Pixabay

Joined-up-thinking requires joined-up-practice. This is the meta-shift of our time, one that requires a new mind set and skill set: learning to think like a system by working as a system.

Joining the Dots

If we want to change whole systems we’ve got to think and work as whole systems. Nobody can think non-linearly. None of us is that clever. The only way to think in a systemic way is together. Joined-up-thinking requires joined-up-practice. This is the meta-shift of our time, one that requires a new mind set and skill set: learning to think like a system by working as a system.

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Paula Downey

I design and facilitate large scale conversations to support organisation development and whole-system change. https://culturework.ie