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The Wisdom and Folly of Systems Thinking

I’ve just read an article that excites me and irritates me in equal measure. This is usually a sign that there’s something profoundly valuable there. The article is called The Programmable Enterprise. In it, Esko Kilpi brilliantly articulates the dynamic, responsive, evolving nature of living organizations. But he also falls into the common trap of using the misleading language of the machine. And in focusing exclusively on the “networked” nature of the organization, he overlooks the fullness of what it’s capable of.

He’s not alone. I write about this tendency in my book, The Age of Thrivability. The systems thinking that underlies Kilpi’s proposals (and those of many others) is, I argue, “a limited and temporary bridge.” What’s truly needed is living systems thinking. With this, we recognize that an organization, like any living system, “consists of interwoven relationships between distinct, locally acting parts that together make up a coherent whole. Those relationships,” I write, “include responsiveness to changes from context and from within the system itself. And this generative – and regenerative – process is set in motion and sustained by a self-regulating and self-integrating property [that is life].” Only with such a comprehensive view are we able to support the organization in “tak[ing] on full, dynamic creativity and intelligence.”

I will share Kilpi’s article below, with my own comments inserted in orange. His insights are important. And the places where I feel he strays or falls short are useful invitations into further exploration and conversation.  Read more