From the Northeastern Section of the ACS, focusing on career management and development

June 2011
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Thinking about Thinking. 2. System’s Thinking
Filed under: Interviewing, Position Searching, Mature professionals, Post-docs
Posted by: site admin @ 1:44 pm

The second edition of Peter Senge’s book,
“The Fifth Discipline (The art & practice of the
learning organization), Currency/Doubleday,”
is five years old but it is even more relevant
today.  1 

You won’t find too many scientists picking
this book up or recommending it.  It addresses
deep issues that facts and physical theories cannot
get their arms around.  It emphasizes the need
to invoke “system’s thinking” discipline in
assessing ourselves, determining what we
want to do in our careers, and gaining a notion
of what it is we do that is significant.

I am struck by Senge’s “learning disabilities”
that I notice in myself, in other people’s
comments and discussions with me.  Read on
and see if you find one or more fairly common–

1.  People describe their “daily job” as their
profession, rather than the purpose of their work.
[Most see themselves as a part of a complex
system, over which they have little influence.]

2.  “Thou shalt find someone else to blame
when something goes wrong. [it’s the system.]

3.  People reveal themselves as being proactive,
taking charge of their situations.  [More likely,
they are being reactive to limited events and
range of options provided for them…the system]

4.  People converse and are influenced by events,
that lead to ‘event explanations’.  [This distracts
us from observing the longer term patterns of change
that lie behind the events.  More likely, the changes
to our organizations’, societies and personal survival
are threatened by slower gradual processes that we may
not even notice.]

5.  People point out that powerful learning comes
from direct experience.  [Our ‘Learning horizon’ has
shifted now beyond the space and time of our
individual actions because of complexities.  We do
not experience directly the consequences of many of
our most important decisions.]

These and other candid examples point to most of
us missing a ‘bigger picture’ view of the full system
in which we interact.  With poignant exercises, we
learn that our range of influence extends far beyond
what we simply believe.  Moving from the linear
cause-effect models to systems approaches with
feedback loops, delays, team goal setting and
commitment instills a discipline that can be
of value in our personal careers.  2 

One clear statement by Stenge is that ‘when placed
in similar situations, most people, no matter who
they are, will produce similar results.’  The system
is in control.
When sophisticated models are applied to come
up with probabilistic outcomes, failure results
because of the “dynamic complexity” of real
world systems.  Models assume a “detail
complexity,” a simplified construct.