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A Sketch of A Stepping-Stone Model for Systems Fluidity

Monday April 11, 2022

The text below is a sketch from my journal and I thought I’d share it here so I don’t forget about it…

To those of us who do a lot of systems thinking, it’s becoming ever more clear that we live in a post-system world. It’s a world in which systems are widely understood and accepted as such, and subsumed into social meme culture.

We are far past the point at which “systems thinking” was broadly interesting as a novel term, and we have long since reached the point at which well-designed systems of the past can also be modeled as a threat to our current well-being.

Systems are now part of a broader, social conversation and information flow. In the world of internet platforms we can perceive one huge social “wall” against which we all throw our content and see what sticks, together.

This implies that those of us applying systems and systematic approaches, while still doing important work, may benefit from zooming out a bit, and giving additional consciousness and attention to a flow of systems engagement, or a flow between systems.

One of the biggest problems facing those seeking therapeutic resources is the fear of the unknown, the future-tense, “will be, or may be” aspect. More than ever, people are becoming aware that change is not only necessary, but is also happening whether we like it or not.

This thought alone is a stimulant, and certainly a possible point of anxiety.

But we are also more conscious of the need to welcome change. In recent decades we have become more conscious of the risks of bringing the past wholly forward in order to solve problems in the future. The risks emphasize the need for a newness. And newness implies change.

In order to become more comfortable with the unknown, and thus more capable of facing challenges in the future, we’ll need to learn to fluidly navigate across systems, using the systems themselves as foundations, but also as increments, similar to stepping-stones.

Without this fluidity, people tend to come to perceive (consciously or unconsciously) the system in question as a provider of a given set of outcomes, and then perceive themselves as stuck with those outcomes. This will certainly increase the level of frustration a person feels with themselves and others.

What counts as a system, in this context?

  • A relationship
  • A team
  • A membership in an organization
  • A belief system
  • A problem-solving method, or a way of thinking about things
  • A corporation

(Exercise—are there specific examples of the above which come to mind and make you uncomfortable? If so—this gets exactly at my point)

Eventually, systems of this type will head toward disintegration if they aren’t redefined and re-contextualized to account for those emergent, yet-unknown needs which the future brings.

Human psychology is too dynamic to place trust in individual systems for very long, even though the systems’ usefulness may still be worth recognizing, or it may differ depending on the context.

So, we must learn to identify or create perceptions of navigable pathways between systems that transcend already-known boundaries. How do we do this?

For example, how can you preserve the system in which you own and operate your car, being authentic to what you love about driving your car, while also transitioning to a new state in which you live a car-free lifestyle, and authentically live its advantages?

Here are some ideas, for starters:

First, one must first meet a basic level of openness to new ideas and concepts. We can model this as “don’t be afraid of the future,” but there are other ways of looking at it:

  • Recognize and illustrate other examples of “having both”, i.e. examples not having anything to do with cars. Map this onto the current car-related context.
  • Encouraging an experimental approach, solving detail-problems as they arise
  • Modeling ways to find useful assistance or input rather than sitting with the problem

One must also be able to redefine a situation. This is as simple as switching from words that apply, that you used before, to words that also apply, that you didn’t use before.

For example:

  • What happens when you model “procrastination” as “waiting for the right moment”?
  • What new insights open up when you model “earth” as “living system”?

Finally, one must stay with the effort, check in on it over time, and hold it in a spirit of persistence and authenticity. This will help the individual continue to change things while moving ahead. For example:

  • How do you follow up on problems that are important to you?
  • What gets in the way, and how can it be dealt with?
  • How do you process regrets and mistakes in a way that helps you save face and feel less like a failure?

These are some of the first important steps in stepping forward with systems. And we must bring our systems-consciousness forward.

But we must also become new beings, in a sense—newly aware of new leverage over threats and problems constantly arriving from the future, which our previous systems may not be able to handle.

As we learn to improve our capacity to work in this way, our general ability to solve problems related to the future-concept will increase. As a result, our future-anxieties will dramatically decrease, and we’ll enter into a new period of superheroic possibilities.

It’s difficult to imagine a more amazing outcome, if we can pull it off.

Filed in: Control /105/ | Thinking /67/ | Therapeutic Practice /141/

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