What If Business Took Systems Thinking Seriously?

June 30th, 2012
in Op Ed

by Guest Author Robert Doppelt

The economy is in the tank and thousands of people are out of work. At the same time, the planet is dangerously heating up and ecological systems are earth-nasa-photo2SMALLdeclining. What are we to make of these troubles? Are they merely the result of poor policies? Or is something more fundamental at play?

The roots of our difficulties are simple, yet for many business leaders completely hidden from view. The activities of most firms, and the goals and structure of the economy as a whole, have been shaped by fundamental misjudgments about how the planet functions and what it means to live a good life

Follow up:

To resolve today’s challenges, our leaders must overcome the erroneous perspectives that created the predicament. At the most fundamental level, this requires moving from a ‘linear’ way of thinking—where we focus on quickly fixing the most visibly broken parts of what isn’t working--to a ‘systems’ perspective that brings our thinking and behavior into line with the natural laws of sustainability. Despite years of talk about systemic thinking, few companies actually practice it. This is due, in part, to the lack of a simple framework to guide the implementation of a systems perspective.

Here is a framework involving five interrelated commitments that can help leaders make the shift from linear to systems thinking.

First, always strive to see the systems of which you are part. The economy collapsed in large part because the financial sector maximized it’s own self-interests without considering the consequences for the larger economic system is it embedded within. The Earth is heating up because humans have maximized their economic interests by burning coal, oil and gas without considering the effects on the global climate system.

It is an indisputable fact that all life on the planet, including each one of us, exists only because we are enmeshed within a complex web of interdependent ecological and social systems. Executives must remove their blinders and recognize this natural law of interdependency. The first commitment required to make the shift to systems thinking is to ‘”see the economic, social and ecological systems you are part of.”

Systems are not easy to quantify. But you can map them. Drawing systems maps will help leader’s grasp that they exist only because they are part of complex interdependent systems.

Second, be accountable for all of the consequences of your actions on those systems.
In today’s over-crowded, over-heating, and extensively interconnected world, almost every action we take affects the planet’s social, economic, and ecological systems in some way, now or in the future. Like a Bull in a China shop, however, business and government leaders pursue their own self-interests without considering the consequences on those systems. The natural law of cause and effect is ubiquitous. Our failure to understand this always produces dire outcomes. Assessing carbon footprints is a start. But much more is required. Executives must strive to account for all of the possible consequences of their firm’s activities on the social, economic and ecological systems they are part of.

Like systems, cause and effect can be difficult to quantify. But it can be mapped using tools such as ‘fishbone’ diagrams.

Third, abide by society’s long held universal moral principles of equity and justice. After their awareness expands of the affects of their activities on the systems they are part of, leaders must adopt a clear set of moral principles to guide their response. By morality I mean decisions about what is fair and unfair in the way they treat people here and abroad, and what their duties and responsibilities are to others. The most universally held moral precept is to ‘do no harm.’ The natural law of moral justice says that any action that causes unjustifiable human suffering and death is morally wrong. Our use of fossil fuels is already causing human suffering and death, and much more will occur as the planet warms. This is one example of morally wrong behavior. A commitment to ‘do no harm’ focuses executives on the need to control their innate selfish and aggressive traits.

Investigating the many ways an organization can ‘do no harm’ is a powerful exercise.

Fourth, acknowledge your trustee obligations and take responsibility for the continuation of all life. The scale of today’s economy and associated ecological impacts mean that human activities, not natural processes, will now determine the fate of the Earth. Like it or not, we must now accept the natural law of trusteeship---every individual and organization is a trustee of the planet with the responsibility to ensure the continuation of all life for current and future beneficiaries. The Golden Rule expresses this commitment: “Treat others as you would like them to treat you.” We must treat the economic, social, and ecological systems we are embedded within as we want others to treat them, because our lives depend on it. This commitment magnifies the innate selfless, cooperative, and caring instincts to ‘do good’ that is inherent in every business and political leader.

When public and private sector leaders clearly and publicly state-- and enforce --the moral principles that will guide their organization’s activities, constructive changes always result.

Fifth, break free from the false beliefs that control your life and choose your own destiny. Many executives have been taught that focusing on ‘Me’ alone—maximizing their personal, family, and organizational wellbeing over everything else--is natural and good. But this view confuses self-centeredness with individual freedom. No executive needs to be controlled by these outdated harmful beliefs and habits. Everyone can think systemically at any time. The natural law of free will offers empowering knowledge. Every public and private organization can abide by the five commitments any time they choose.

The shift to sustainability happens one person and one organization at a time. This means the starting point for addressing today’s many crises is each of us. As other leaders begin to think systemically, social contagion will occur and the cultural and political will needed to set society on a truly sustainable path will emerge.


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About the Author

doppeltBob Doppelt is the Executive Director of The Resource Innovation Group (TRIG) and an adjunct professor in the Department of Planning, Public Policy and Management at the University of Oregon where he teaches systems thinking and global warming policy.  He is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for Sustainable Communities at Willamette University and the author of "From Me to We: The Five Transformational Commitments Required to Rescue the Planet, Your Organization, and Your Life".  For more information, please visit, www.me-to-we.org.

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1 comment

  1. admin (Member) Email says :

    Email comment received from Sig:

    I believe in anthropogenic climate change. I have studied it carefully and it is pretty obvious that GHG makes the climate warmer.

    If we wanted to slow down that process, a systems approach would be preferable to a non-systems approach.

    If we wanted to mitigate the impacts while still benefiting from the use of fossil fuels, a systems approach would be better than a none-systems approach. I always attempt to employ a systems approach and quite frankly to some extent every business that I have been associated with attempted to use a systems approach to their business. They did not always sort things out correctly. But they wanted to.

    So I am reading this article and realizing that I didn't necessarily disagree with the author on anything but also didn't feel that I either learned anything or had any of my beliefs challenged or my thought processes stimulated except for one thing.

    I don't see any instances in nature where a species takes action to protect offspring beyond grandchildren. A bird makes a nest presumably for its chicks. A parent protects its children and perhaps the children of close relatives and the children of its children.

    Perhaps you could argue that ants and termites are preparing for many future generations..but its hard to really know what they are thinking. Julia is a Ph.D entomologist who specialized in Hymenoptera so I could ask her what she thinks.

    At any rate it is not clear to me that "sustainability" to the extent it means short term sacrifice is part of our genetic structure and its survival value is fairly cloudy. It is not clear that a healthy planet provides one with an advantage re having ones own genes survive relative to the genes of other members of our species. Most behavior in nature has to do with preservation of genetic material.

    People do like to leave edifices (buildings named after them) and estates for children for multiple generations but generally to preserve genetic material and Foundations to perpetuate their ideas. Again that is not indicative of a general altruistic characteristic of our or any other species.

    My life partner is a biologist so I pay attention to the way animals behave. We are an animal.

    I do not believe that long sustainability is built into our genetic structure. It is a choice but not a biological imperative.

    So the whole premise of this post's argument devolves into religion. One might adopt those values. But it is not at all clear to me that they are natural. They do not seem to fit with Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection.

    So yes it got me thinking about that but I was reluctant to comment since basically I would be being very negative about this article and i did not want to do that.

    When I read most of the articles on your website, they make me think. I don't always agree with everything that is posted but it always is interesting. It raises questions and gives me homework to do. Being bored is the worst thing.

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