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Systems Thinking and Conscious Business


Today one of my sons told me he had been trying out the text-to-speech option on the Kindle. He thought it funny it couldn’t speak properly – all it does is read the words with no intonation or sense of meaning.

This led to a discussion of the difference between a series of words and a sentence. The computer can read each word individually but has no sense of the bigger thing – the sentence. Nor of the next bigger thing, the paragraph. Nor the next – the chapter, or indeed of the whole book.

It is very clear that a book is much more than all the words in it added together.

Take a piece of paper and draw 5 boxes. Arrange them in the rough shape of a circle. You can see the boxes. You can also see the circle. But where exactly is the circle? It doesn’t really exist in one sense – there are no lines on the paper which make up a circle. The circle only exists as an emergent property of the individual boxes arranged in a particular way.

2 + 2 = 5. Or in this case, 1 + 1 + 1+ 1 + 1 = 6.

These examples illustrate something that is central to thinking about business in a “systems” way.

This has little to do with IT systems, by the way; nor systems in the sense of processes that are used to deal with issues methodically or “systematically”. We’re using a different meaning of the word – this is systemic not systematic thinking.

These examples illustrate that businesses are complex systems. They are made up of “just” the individuals that work in them, but they are also much more than that. They are all the relationships between the people as well. And the relationships externally too.

And they are even more than that. They are wholes, and also part of a bigger whole. They’re integrated and connected into that bigger whole in ways that may even be difficult for us to comprehend.

This may all sound rather ethereal.

But it has some very practical implications.

For example, when trying to improve profitability in a company managers are often tempted to play around with metrics or KPIs. Adjust a few simple things like how hard people work, and surely profitability will increase?

I’m afraid it just isn’t so. A business is a complex system, and playing with one low level metric is just as likely to make things worse as it is to make things better.

Much better to think systemically. I have blogged before about Donella Meadows and her (fairly) famous list of the best points to intervene in a complex system. Be it a business or any other system.

According to Meadows, the least powerful are the ones we most often think of, presumably because they are easy to grasp and grapple with: constants, parameters, and numbers. Often we rearrange these “deck chairs” while the ship is sinking.

Transparency – who sees which information – comes in at number six from the top.  Transparency is a core part of developing a conscious business. It does work to radically change behaviour – and is certainly much more powerful than changing low level metrics themselves.

But the really powerful levers (in Meadows’ view, and mine) are:

  • The goal(s) of the system.
  • The mindset or paradigm out of which the system arises.
  • The power to transcend paradigms.

Consider that a business that chases short-term profitability has a different goal from one that is interested in profitability over the long-term.

Asking questions like “what is a business for?”, or “what does competition actually mean?” is the kind of activity that can lead to a shift of paradigm or mindset.

And realising that how we see things changes everything is the ultimate lever. That, of course, is what consciousness is all about.

PS To get started in systems thinking I’d really recommend the late Dana Meadows book Thinking in Systems: A Primer. Or try the Systems Thinking wiki. Or more recently I really enjoyed The Gardens of Democracy if you want to explore how (eco) systems thinking relates to areas beyond business.

Author: Pete Burden

New ways to organise and lead - for people with 'purpose' #leadership #inquiry #noticing #complexity #communication

7 thoughts on “Systems Thinking and Conscious Business

  1. Hi Pete,

    An excellent, thought-provoking and inspiring, post, thank you. I enjoyed the Kindle experience (made me laugh) and I think it demonstrated so well the importance of context. Thank you too for the reference to Donella Meadows’ work. Your post made me think too of Norman Wolfe’s The Living Organisation (recently published). Norman is rather a wise old soul who has a good take on the importance of the context field in business.

    I agree that questions or inquiry are a great way for context to be shifted because it leads to self-discovered knowledge, and that in seeing how we see we naturally shift our consciousness. I wonder what other practical possibilities there are for shifting consciousness/context in business other than asking great questions – what has been your experience?

    After three and a half years in South Africa I am relocating back to London in June. I would very much enjoy meeting up with you to connect on all things conscious business. Would you like to do this?

    Kind regards,

  2. Reblogged this on The Conscious Leadership Consultancy and commented:
    An excellent post on the importance of context in business (and of course in life). Context is so much more powerful than content. Shift context, and you can shift the whole interconnected system in a matter of a few smart interventions. Fiddle with content and you, as Pete Burden says, run the risk of simply rearranging the deckchairs.

  3. Hi Pete,

    Good post, and you make a complex subject accessible!

    My take in systems thinking and complexity, when it comes to organisations and leadership within them, is that conventional, linear approaches often just don’t cut it, yet more often than not the solution seems to be ‘more of the same’. And that, in a sense, it understandable: we like what we know, and know what we like. To get into a space where systems thinking – or other post-conventional approaches – is an option requires the client to at least be able to consider that their version of reality might not actually be how it is. And some clients simply are not there…. their stories are so embedded and existing habits have worn deep grooves, and things may need to get worse before they get better.

    Re your questions, I’d add another, which maybe is nested in your second one, namely “what is your purpose?”, which I direct at the point attractor, normally the CEO/MD or another agent in the system with significant influence.

    Best wishes,


  4. Hi Steve, I like the “what is your purpose” question or the one Ray (Richards) often asks: “What will help you be happy?”.

    It seems to me that these are, at root, all “why?” questions.

    Which explains why Ricardo Semler and so many real business leaders love the repetitive use of that very simple question: “Why?”


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