Have you ever experienced a moment in which you have a profound sense of joy in the potential of humanity . . . a glowing feeling of confidence that mankind is going to be okay after all?  It’s the kind of experience in which you begin to feel really calm and centred.

I had that experience when three children, ages 12, 14 and 16, made a presentation to the Systems Thinking in Action Conference in San Francisco.

The Systems Thinking Conference organized by Pegasus is an annual learning event at which Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline, and 800 systems thinking practitioners from business, education, health care, government, and academia gather to learn about what people are discovering from their experiences with organizational and whole system transformation.

While I usually leave this four-day learning event refreshed and excited about the incredible breakthroughs in applied systems thinking that are being achieved by learning organizations from over 20 countries around the world, this time I was simply filled with a warm sense of optimism for the future.

While there were more than 50 workshops to choose from, I was attracted by the presentation title:  Starting Early:  How K-12 Students are Becoming Systems Thinkers.

The workshop program outline for the conference read: “As more and more businesses recognize that skill in systems thinking is  an essential element of basic management literacy, they not only seek knowledgeable recruits, but also look for ways to build internal capability. Learn how one school   district has organized  to teach teachers  and  students  alike  how to use systems thinking and systems dynamics, as three public school students and one of their system dynamics mentors share some projects and the tools and techniques they have used.”

As someone who teaches systems thinking skills to adults, I was most intrigued by the following line in the brochure: “Long before they become the sought-after leaders of tomorrow, these students are cultivating the mental models and skills required to make decisions and take effective action based on deep understanding of the dynamics of the systems that will affect their lives and their work.”

As a parent of two children, I’m deeply concerned about the confusion, chaos and frustration being experienced by the education system.  I worry that while my children will be living in the knowledge economy, they are still being trained for the industrial era.

While I was keen to see children who have had systems thinking training from the start, I was also energized by the hope expressed in the program outline. While there were a few other workshops being conducted simultaneously, the course description screamed out at me the words “kids” and “hope”. 

In my imagination I visualized a world in which everyone was able to explore their own and other people’s thinking while they worked co-operatively together to continuously improve the world around them.  That’s the ultimate promise of the knowledge economy where integrative holistic thinking replaces linear silo-thinking.

But to successfully shift from the industrial society to the information economy will require a fundamental change in the way we think and behave.  In the new economy, because knowledge will expand very rapidly, we must also be able to accelerate the rate at which we learn.

Systems thinking and system dynamics are a set of skills and tools that enable teams of people to tap into their collective intelligence and solve complex problems.  Many would say that such skills and competencies are essential for survival in the information economy.

The seminar started with a highly informative explanation of how the Catalina Foothills School District in Tucson Arizona implemented a fully integrated approach to systems thinking and systems dynamics within individual classrooms, the school and the district itself.  Project manager Joan Yates explained that two important reasons for their success were that the change process was “bottom-up” and highly participative.

After we heard from the grown-ups at the workshop, we had the most extraordinary opportunity to hear and experience clarity of thought from three children who had been learning and practicing systems thinking since Grade Five.

The audience — veterans from learning organizations, business people, teachers, college professors, leading consultants, public policy professionals and leading industrialists — sat spellbound at what often felt like real wisdom coming from the children.

“I’m 52-years old and have been trying to learn more about systems thinking from the experts at this conference, but I’ve learned more about systems thinking from these young people than from any of our top speakers,” said one woman in the audience at the end of the students dialogue.

These young people showed us how they apply systems thinking tools and techniques in their school work — in analyzing literature; in understanding lessons in history; in learning about chemistry; and for examining contemporary issues facing American society.

A 16-year old young woman showed us how she used the Escalation Archetype from causal loop diagrams to analyze the historical lesson learned from a colonial conflict between the British and the French. 

“It’s a reinforcing loop”, said the young woman, “they had to find a way to break the pattern to end the conflict.”

While the escalating causal loop diagram is not difficult to understand intellectually, we could tell that this young girl really did understand the nature of a behavioural dynamic that sucks the life out of many adult-run organizations today.

Adults often have difficulty recognizing repeating patterns of escalation that won’t end until someone breaks the pattern.  That’s the archetype that was in place throughout the arms race between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., and it’s a common pattern of thinking and behaviour in most human organizations and systems today.

I kept reflecting on these circumstances as I listened to these Arizona children who naturally recognize patterns of behaviour over time, and understand the consequences of not breaking the pattern.  That filled me with real hope for a better world.

A teacher in the audience responded:  “Wow, this is really great!  But do you kids ever use stuff outside the classroom?”

“Sure,” the children responded as they gave several examples of how system archetypes appear as realities in their daily lives.

Imagine children — like these ones — who automatically recognize that behaviours like “dissing” in the schoolyard will lead to greater conflicts.  They break the pattern because they  understand that nobody ever really “wins” from escalating conflicts.

The image of a whole generation who are able to see a bigger picture and avoid repeating past patterns of flawed thinking and behaviour certainly energized me.

In the field of organizational transformation and whole system change, adults who have been schooled in traditional linear thinking styles often struggle to see the common patterns of behaviour — the “fixes that fail,” the “shifting the burden,” and each of the archetypes that characterize organizational life. 

The audience — rooted in their own experience of how difficult it is to change the way we think and behave — were clearly moved by what they were experiencing during our dialogue with the children at this workshop.

These kids were different.  Their thinking was not fragmented and linear, it was holistic and integrated. These children actually thought in terms of behaviour-over-time.  They quickly saw patterns in complex systems.  They spoke in terms of relationships of effect between variables — instead of explaining who or what was at fault, or where the “blame” belonged.

These kids were thinking through the lens of dynamics tools with ease.  They were thinking — without the mental blinders of linear thought processes — and comfortably accessing their multiple intelligences.

It would be wonderful to have these children sit down with the warring factions in the education sector and draw causal loop diagrams that explain the dynamics of escalation and why everyone will lose unless someone changes the pattern.

As someone who has spent the last ten years helping adults “learn” systems thinking, the experience of listening to these children was really encouraging.

In my experience, many adults find it difficult to “un-learn” the assumptions that have formed the underlying structure of thought in the industrial age. We continue to hold mental models of reality that are deeply embedded in our linear, mechanistic thinking patterns and habits.

Leaders throughout much of society continue to cling to Newtonian assumptions that prevent them from seeing a larger picture of reality — or from seeing the leveraged actions that would actually achieve the objectives that they say they are attempting to achieve.

When we are trapped in our fragmented and linear thinking patterns, we continue to respond with “quick-fix” solutions: downsizing, restructuring, re-engineering, mergers, centralization.  These were the responses that made sense when the dominant worldview was rooted in the assumptions of the industrial age. Nevertheless, it is the fragmented thinking style we learned in school.

That’s why our leaders in healthcare are so attracted to industrial methodologies like TQM/CQI, re-engineering and lean thinking — each linear thinking styles that fail to grasp the truth about complex, adaptive, human systems.

That’s why the MOHLTC is organized in fragmented silos — where the actions in one part of the ministry create unintended consequences for another.

That’s why when you are so firmly planted in your silo, you cannot see the integrated service delivery system that taxpayers believe they have purchased with their taxes.

Where breakthroughs have occurred in recent years, systems thinking skills, techniques and tools were used by adult learners as filters that allowed them to see a richer interpretation of reality and enabled them to discover the key leverage points in their systems. 

But these children from Tucson very comfortably and quite naturally saw the world’s complexity as patterns.  They understood the systems that they live in as organic living systems that can be better understood by analyzing their dynamics and inter-relationships.

You could sense how these children thought differently.  How they could cut through complexity, and see the real issues with clarity.

In his book, Seeing Systems, Barry Oshry points out that we humans spend our lives in systems: the family, the classroom, the team, the organization, etc.  He says that when we don’t see systems, “we fall out of the possibility of partnership with one another; we make up stories about one another; we become antagonists when we could be collaborators, and we become strangers when we could be friends.”  The children that we saw at this workshop had developed the capacity to “see systems” with clarity.

The Catalina transformation happened as both a bottom-up/top-down process — because a critical mass of people shared the vision for a fundamental transformation. By “transformation”, we mean the process by which a caterpillar becomes a butterfly.

What did I learn at this workshop with the children?

I learned that successful transformations in the education sector –like the healthcare and corporate sectors — need to be bottom-up, not just top down.  It was the Arizona teachers themselves — often inspired and facilitated by principals — who led the transformation.

But mostly I learned — or I had a glimpse of — how clearly children can think and act when they continuously apply systems thinking tools, techniques and practices in their schoolwork and in their lives.  I got that understanding where it matters: my heart, not my head.

That’s why I’m feeling more confident about the future of humanity.

This blog was originally published by Managing Change, Winter, 1999. Since then, Ted’s children became “system thinkers” and today, fifteen years later, they are thriving as young adults. The Ontario education and health systems are not doing quite as well. FORWARD THIS BLOG TO PEOPLE YOU HOPE WILL SPREAD THE WORD ABOUT THE POWER OF SYSTEMS THINKING.

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