My Journey of Systems Thinking – Part I

I write this post today after an engaging day with students at ISDM on systems thinking and sustainability. The classes start at 9 am and continue till 5 pm. Today was the fourth day and it seems like we have come a long way, not only in terms of students learning systems thinking but the quality of engagement has reached a new level.

The striking point came when students asked me to explain my day at work, on how do I use systems thinking there and the process of its application. The question was striking because it made me feel like the students wanted to know how I have managed to reach this stage where I am doing professional projects using systems thinking and system dynamics. More so because for them the subject looked too difficult to apply in real world for finding solutions. They couldn’t really imagine on how diving deep into complexity of real world problems could yield fruitful results and generate solutions in today’s world. The question was also striking because it gave me a sense of honor because here were a bunch of 65 students interested to learn from my experience.

I feel motivated now to write this post and more on this subject to explain how I started my journey of becoming a systems thinker and convert my skills into professional occupation.

It was in July 2007 when I first learned about systems thinking. Mr. Sushil Bajpai and Mr. Rajinder Raina took our first class on systems thinking at Sadhana Center for Management and Leadership Development (SCMLD), Pune. The first presentation showed to us was of images from zoom book,  a view of life going from microscopic to telescopic. That first presentation made an impression on me. What a fantastic way it was to show how things are interconnected and that we live in a world of systems and sub systems.

The next deck of slides explained us the definition of A System. How do we know what is a system and what is not a system. This was a tricky question. Reads easy but when one thinks about it, it is not so easy to define it well. After some deliberation out came the answer, “A System is made up of parts which are interrelated, interconnected, interdependent having a purpose”. We all went berserk in identifying systems all around us. Since then the subject never really left me. I went on diving deep into it. In the next classes we were introduced to Mental Models. That class in particular was fascinating. It introduced us to the fact that how all of us interpret reality, build images in our mind and use them to take decisions. More importantly that these mental models are flawed, because we use rationality to simplify reality which implies that there are lot of assumptions there which make our mental models inadequate and incomplete. This was quite a revelation for me. I came from a financial markets experience and there the whole game was who has got it right and who knows reality the best in order to predict it and mint money. The best analysts would draw large pay based on how well their models performed in relation with reality. This thought was so well rooted in me that learning about mental models was actually life changing.

The initial few classes had cemented a space for systems thinking in my life. Interestingly, one night in my hostel room, Amey Phadke and I were chatting just before calling it a day. Lying on our beds, with lights put off, we were asking each other where do we see ourselves after five years from now. I cannot remember what Amey replied, but I do remember clearly what I had said, because I said what I really deeply believed. I said, “It looks like I will join stock markets after college, but if you really ask me – deep within I feel that I am made for systems thinking and that’s where I would land up. Honestly speaking I think I would be doing systems thinking”. I did join stock markets after my post grad building equity valuation models for oil and gas companies, doing commodity research and interacting with institutional investors. But within six months I switched careers and moved on to work with Mr. Sushil Bajpai at WOTR and there began my journey of systems thinking and system dynamics, on job. And here I am today writing a post on it after 10 years of having that conversation with Amey at my hostel room.

The journey so far has been full of turning points and life changing moments, some planned, most unplanned.

….. to be contd. See Part II

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