Five Horizons of Systems Mastery

What does it take to become a rounded systems practitioner?

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Photo: Philippe Vandenbroeck

Systems practice

In common parlance ‘systems thinking’ is understood as ‘thinking in systems’ (as the title of Donella Meadows’ posthumously published, widely read book suggests). It relies on systems concepts — such as stocks, flows, feedback loops, network and hierarchy — to structure the problem solving process in relation to particular design challenges.

The five horizons

Horizon 1: Tools

It is not unusual to become acquainted with systems concepts, and to get a first taste for systems practice, through the use of distinct, well-codified frameworks and tools. The scope of a systems practice toolbox extends beyond various types of system maps and simulation models and may include elements from many other disciplines, such as design thinking, network science, business strategy and ecology.

Horizon 2: Method

Methods are structured approaches that reflect systems principles and encompass a range of tools. They are intellectual Swiss Army knives that can be deployed to pursue different purposes in different contexts.

Horizon 3: Learning

I see this horizon as the core of systems practice. It is where we engage in sustained efforts to embrace the unruliness of wicked problems. Uncertainty, bounded rationality (we can’t know everything) and multiple perspectives (we don’t see challenges in the same way) are inextricably linked to these longer term learning processes.

Horizon 4: Ethos

Systems practice comes with the requirement to constantly question ourselves in relation to the ethics and the risk of failure associated to complex learning processes. It is the sort of learning that is bound to challenge our sense of identity.

Horizon 5: Epistemology

Systems practice is rooted into a systems worldview or ‘epistemology’ that revolves around the experience of interdependence, the power of love and the intelligence of life. Gregory Bateson: “The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and how people think.”

From thinking to tinkering to being

I experience the overall journey to rounded systems mastery as a movement from ‘systems thinking’ (horizon 1 and 2) to ‘systems tinkering’ (horizon 2 and 3), to ‘systems being’ (horizons 4 and 5).

Written by

Systems & futures thinker ⎹ @shiftNGroup ⎹ shiftN Academy ⎹ helping ‘change makers for the common good’ to handle complex strategic challenges #systemsthinking

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