Using systems thinking can be incredibly beneficial. But it can be difficult for people new to this concept to really see the full picture.
The reason is simple. Our perspective is different from the reality of the system. We are all biased and all see things in a way that is tinted and framed in a specific way due to our experiences, beliefs, behaviors, friends, religion, hometown, education etc.
This might make it seem as though we can’t understand enough of the system to make a positive change. This isn’t the case. We can explore the system and start to slowly understand how to see things more objectively.
It usually starts with admitting that we are biased. If we deny this fact then we will always let it drive our thoughts. But when we know that we are biased we can look at the system and observe the bias that we put on the system. Over time we can start to innately know that what we see will be slightly different from reality.
I know that my obsession with systems and systems thinking paints the world around me in a different way. This perspective does color things and sometimes I wrongly assume people understand the system when they make a choice.
Years ago I worked for a small business support organization. When I would meet successful business owners, I assumed that they all must understand systems and how to use systems in their business. I assumed that was a precursor to their success.
What I found was that some of them were systems nuts just like me but most were not. Many could use systems and be strategic but they enjoyed incredible success by focusing on other aspects of the business. I started to realize that my bias had a false belief in my mind that said all successful business owners must use systems thinking in order to be successful. But this isn’t the case.
I’m currently reading Seth Godin’s book, Small is the New Big. I love his writing because he tends to push certain ideas and concepts and often writes something that really makes you think in a new way.
In one section he says, “I almost bought some expensive Back to Nature-brand cookies. Everything about the packaging is perfect. The matte finish. The old-fashioned rolltop on the bag, just like we grew up with. The colors and more.”
With Godin’s incredible knowledge of marketing I assumed what would come next is praise for this company being able to promote their value proposition in such an aligned manner. I assumed those cookies were healthier than the rest.
He then goes on to say, “The only problem is that these cookies are no healthier than most of the others on the shelf. The reason to buy them is that they make it easy to lie to yourself when you feed ‘em to your kids.”
To me this goes right into perspective. If everything about a product seems to align with our perspective on something, we naturally make the assumption that the product is that quality. But in this case, they are not.
So how do we deal with the fact that there will always be areas that play off our perspective to trick us into believing a lie?
There really are two ways to attack this. First, stay humble. As I mentioned earlier, being able to see our perspectives and the biases we naturally have is important. We can start to see where we might be projecting our own thoughts rather than seeing the reality of the situation.
The other way to push against this is to use many sources to form our opinion.
I used to be very influenced by a single source. I would read an article and completely agree with the author’s point. Then I would read an article saying the opposite and I would agree with that author’s point. It took a while to realize that they are saying opposite statements, just framing them in a certain way.
A good example came when I was in college and we were studying the death penalty. We were presented information supporting the death penalty. I read it and convinced myself that this information was correct.
Then we started to explore reasons why the death penalty was wrong. I started to realize that my strongly held belief in the death penalty was started to loosen as I learned more about the other side.
Over time I shifted my belief in the death penalty. But what changed my mind wasn’t reading supporting information it was finding conflicting information.
Now I like to deliberately go to sources that I know are against my point of view. I don’t do it to argue or dismiss but to actually try to understand their point of view better.
Doing this has the benefit that if we can fully understand both sides we will better see the real systems at play. It will also help us become less opinionated. We will start to see others points of view and understand the answer is usually much more complicated that either side would have you believe.
Going back to Godin’s example, if the only judgment of a healthy food comes from the packaging, we can be easily misled. A company can simply state, “All Natural”, on anything to convince us that this item is a healthy choice, even if it isn’t.
If we use this information but combine it with lots of different perspectives on eating healthy then we can start to better understand the health benefits of the product.
We can look to those promoting whole-wheat products, lower calories, a reduction in carbs etc. We can start to understand their points and why they feel their perspective on nutrition is the best. We can explore the scientific research and the radical new theories.
This will help keep us from constantly being led too far in one direction. So when another egg study comes out and says they are now healthy, we don’t just assume everything is healthy about them. When a conflicting study on eggs gets released in a year saying they are unhealthy, we don’t just jump to that perspective, instead we add it to what we know and what we have learned to make up our own mind about them.
It might seem that if we believe something we should do everything to try and validate that opinion. We read articles by authors who feel that way, talk to friends who have that same belief, etc.
But if we really want to understand the full system, we can’t rely on one source of information. We have to get in the habit of looking at many perspectives and gaining as much information as possible so we can form a more knowledgeable perspective. It will still be biased but at least it will take into account many points of view instead of one and provide a better understanding of the system.