This year’s Systems Thinking in Action conference hosted by Pegasus Communications in Indianapolis, Indiana, brought a question into focus: What struck you?
In his keynote address, Peter Block emphasized the importance of questions, such as this. His message: Questions are the point; questions bring us together; and answers keep us apart. We must ask great questions that are open-ended and ambiguous to promote thought and a chance to deepen our experience together.
As I reflect on what struck me about this conference, I look to the wealth of experience of the global community of participants who share a passion for creating positive change through attention to organizational learning. My participation over the three days surfaced a number of themes and ambiguous questions that will guide my continued learning. For instance, the central theme of the conference was “the power is in connections,” but what does this really mean?
An integrative theme for me was the centrality of the human interactive experience in the work that I do. Systems thinking is ultimately a human practice, not simply something drawn through a causal-loop diagram. The entire conference served to build a container for me around the human aspects of thinking and acting systemically. Peter Block encouraged us to create a culture of accountability through sharing our gifts, and drew the large group into connection through small circles. This theme continued in the first session I attended: Liberating Structures: A Pattern Language for Engagement, which is a wordy description of how changing (or liberating) the structures of how we communicate leads to shifts in our engagement with one another. The quality of our relationships directly influences effective team interactions. This session left me with many questions: How well do I interact with others? How can I improve the systems I operate in simply by changing the patterns of engagement? How do I hold myself back from my own potential for doing so?
The human theme continued for me in the afternoon seminar on the four Q’s, which built off of Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence theories and Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence approaches. We operate individually and then interact systemically based on our intellectual, emotional, meaning, and intuition—each of which can be described as a quotient. These quotients form the basis of our intrapersonal and interpersonal relationships. By attending to our natural tendencies and being aware of our less-developed quotients we can improve the nature of our relationships. Can I be honest with myself about my own quotient development? Can I have the courage to step beyond my comfort zone and live to my fullest in all the quotient areas? How do I show up in my relationships based on my quotients?
Meg Wheatley continued the theme of provocative questions in her afternoon exploration that began with the statement “relationships are all there is.” Wheatley explored the importance of relationship in our current social situation, and entreated us to focus on the quality of our relationships—both internally and externally. “Pay exquisite attention to what is happening in your relationships” is a quote I have written down from that session—a quote that takes on significant meaning for me in a world where I find myself learning at a distance and have friends poking fun at me for not “connecting” with them over Facebook. How do I connect with those who I love and cherish? How do I withdraw in a conscious manner and not as a default? How do I connect and build relationships in a city that seems to value aloof introversion? Wheatley’s words struck me in a deep way when she looked at concepts of our self-organized behavior and asked, “If things continue this way for another year, will your team be higher functioning or not?” When I applied this to my internal world and my family-team, I only found more questions for myself, such as: How am I showing up? Am I doing the best I can? When I am not happy, is that due to anyone else but me? How can I improve my relationships in my systems? Wheatley’s words forced me to take a close look at the ways in which I show up in my relationships and inspire me to question how I can do better.
Peter Senge is a foundational figure in the systems thinking world. I appreciate that he opened his keynote address with a great question: Why do the connections matter? The ensuing exploration of our educational system exposed some of my greatest vulnerabilities as a parent. As a father of a new kindergartener, I am facing the severe limitations of our educational system and the society that underfunds and undervalues public education. Senge noted how our current system of education is based on a profound disrespect for our children when true education and the human learning and development process should leave us in a state of awe. He spoke about the need to transform our relationships with Mother Earth and with our fellow humans. Senge’s words helped me bring forth some critical questions: Am I doing the best I can? How do I remain in my own denial? What is the highest way for me to bring forth my gifts? What does a great education mean for my children?
I did not get what I expected from this conference. Having not attended before, I thought it might be all about casual loop diagrams and solving problems, which would be great for my Ph.D. program. I took the leap of faith and attended and, in doing so, I discovered how much systems thinking is really about recognizing, valuing, and working within relationships. The power is in the connections or, perhaps, the power is in the people and in how we connect with our world and with each other. Working on who we are in relationship is vitally important. I find myself with no easy answers. Instead, I sit with lots of great questions and the curiosity to work with myself.