Systems Thinking

I'm deep in essay writing mode - its 7am and I've been at it for approximately 12 hours. I'm currently writing about the limits of environmental CSR initiatives in a neoliberal economy.Needless to say, it got me thinking about paradigm shifts. Conveniently, Donella Meadows is one of my key sources. Here are two extracts from Places to Intervene in Systems in Order of Increasing Effectiveness.

People who manage to intervene in systems at the level of paradigm hit a leverage  point that totally transforms systems.

You could say paradigms are harder to change than anything else about a system, and therefore this item should be lowest on the list, not the highest. But there's nothing  physical or expensive or even slow about paradigm change. In a single individual it can happen in a millisecond. All it takes is a click in the mind, a new way of seeing. Of course individuals and societies do resist challenges to their paradigm harder than they resist any other kind of change.

So how do you change paradigms? Thomas Kuhn, who wrote the seminal book about  the great paradigm shifts of science, has a lot to say about that. In a nutshell, you keep  pointing at the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm, you come yourself, loudly, with assurance, from the new one, you insert people with the new paradigm in places of public visibility and power. You don't waste time with reactionaries; rather you work with active change agents and with the vast middle ground of people who are open-minded.

Systems folks would say one way to change a paradigm is to model a system, which takes you outside the system and forces you to see it whole. We say that because our own paradigms have been changed that way.


The highest leverage of all is to keep oneself unattached in the arena of paradigms, to realize that NO paradigm is "true," that even the one that sweetly shapes one's comfortable worldview is a tremendously limited understanding of an immense and amazing universe.

It is to "get" at a gut level the paradigm that there are paradigms, and to see that that itself is a paradigm, and to regard that whole realization as devastatingly funny. It is to let go into Not Knowing.developer.

People who cling to paradigms (just about all of us) take one look at the spacious possibility that everything we think is guaranteed to be nonsense and pedal rapidly in the opposite direction. Surely there is no power, no control, not even a reason for being, much less acting, in the experience that there is no certainty in any worldview. But everyone who has managed to entertain that idea, for a moment or for a lifetime, has found it a basis for radical empowerment. If no paradigm is right, you can choose one that will help achieve your purpose. If you have no idea where to get a purpose, you can listen to the universe (or put in the name of your favorite deity here) and do his, her, its will, which is a lot better informed than your will.

It is in the space of mastery over paradigms that people throw off addictions, live in constant joy, bring down empires, get locked up or burned at the stake or crucified or shot, and have impacts that last for millennia.

Back from the sublime to the ridiculous, from enlightenment to caveats. There is so much that has to be said to qualify this list. It is tentative and its order is slithery. There are exceptions to every item on it. Having the list percolating in my subconscious for years has not transformed me into a Superwoman. I seem to spend my time running up and down the list, trying out leverage points wherever I can find them. The higher the leverage point, the more the system resists changing it—that's why societies rub out truly enlightened beings.

I don't think there are cheap tickets to system change. You have to work at it, whether that means rigorously analyzing a system or rigorously casting off paradigms. In the end, it seems that leverage has less to do with pushing levers than it does with disciplined thinking combined with strategically, profoundly, madly letting go."