My Journey of Systems Thinking – Part III

Where did I learn systems thinking? The answer is simple but confusing, even to me. Technically, I learnt it at my post grad college, Sadhana Center for Management and Leadership Development, Pune. This was a subject in our curriculum. We studied it for two years. First year we had systems thinking and then an elective on system dynamics modeling. Sushil Bajpai and Rajinder Raina were our mentors, professors, friends and fellow systems thinkers. They had this impossible task of teaching systems thinking to 160 idiots. When I reflect now I think my performance in class and particularly in exams was below par. That is according to my standards and interpretation. But my mark-sheet tells a different story. May be my professors were liberal, may be they saw something more than what exam results or written answers told them. They had an insight and a foresight on how to identify, nurture interest and develop potential systems thinkers.

But I did not really learn systems thinking alone in my college. I was introduced to it there, I read and heard it there, I also practiced it, applying to some of our corporate strategy cases. I had used it to study Dell company’s strategy on how their business model was different from others. Organised a systems thinking seminar calling the commissioner of Pune plus more audience. Sushil and Rajinder got Shiela Damodaran to Pune to conduct that seminar and we did more stuff.  Linking Vipassana to Systems Thinking, the business model of Dabbawalas to principles of systems thinking. All that was very good but I was not really a systems thinking practitioner back then.

When I joined WOTR, Sept 2009, I worked with Sushil Bajpai and a bunch of brilliant folks there working on really complex social and ecological issues. The project was on climate change adaptation. It had all the elements of real world complexity that one can imagine. It also had institutional complexity which was to dealt with bringing in elements of learning organization pedagogy (more on this later). The project was a pioneering effort in the field of climate change adaptation in India. WOTR had a credible name and evidence in field which made them a potent force for community based natural resource management. But this project was a different animal and it brought in new animals at WOTR. I was one of them.

I learnt systems thinking outside my class room. A lot was learnt by observation and not implementation. For around 2 years, I was a fence watcher. Not committing myself into any one activity of the project but learning and observing about what is going on everywhere and what I think could happen. All these years I had the luxury to learn, read, observe, unlearn, relearn. This opportunity was rare, perhaps once in a lifetime. Did I made most of it? Only time will tell. But I had a ball. We use to have intense practical and philosophical discussions on what is true adaptation, why humans fail to understand how their actions are killing themselves, why peak oil would redesign our lives, would peak water hit us first or peak oil or are we living in an age of peak everything? Lot of systems thinking was used in our discussion. I was a mere spect-actor and Sushil did most of the thinking, talking and doing. It was like we had a high quality TED talk every week, coming from our field experiences and books that we use to read and the project ambitions. We use to be very critical of ourselves, our actions and the project itself. Questioning the sustainability of the institution, the project, ourselves and should we even live in cities anymore? Should we reverse migrate? Those were crazy discussions, beyond office space, at our homes, common meeting places, over beer and biryani.

I learnt systems thinking by looking and observing reality and then linking it with the theory of systems thinking. By reading books, not only on systems thinking but on multiple disciplines. I learnt systems thinking at WOTR, by listening to Sushil, by working on field with the team, by talking to community, friends, remembering the theories of books while seeing real world dynamics unfolding on field. I learnt it by practice but not only through implementation. I saw why and how implementation often is weak in rural areas and how, while I was leading some verticals of the projects, I was still making the same mistakes. I understood the power of the system we are in and how it influences our behavior. How we speak one thing, but do another and then still are unaware.

I think I did multiple post grads while at WOTR from 2009 till 2014. Un-parallel to any other experience. I learnt systems thinking through that journey and the journey still continues bringing in more surprises, twists and turns.

One happening and happy journey, I must say.

… to be contd. See part IV

My Journey of Systems Thinking – Part II

For many years people have asked me how is systems thinking different and what is so unique about it. What is the advantage of using it over other methods and techniques? To be honest, I did not had a short and convincing answer back then. It would take me 15 mins of talking to convey what I wanted to say and that too was incomplete. This of course meant that people did not get a clean and cogent answer to their question. I would also substantiate in the end by saying please read on systems thinking and then verbally mention couple of books. With more people asking me this question over time my responses improved incrementally. But they were still not good enough. Probably what was lacking in me was a thorough, continuous application of systems thinking and modeling on real world situations. Every now and then I use to use systems thinking tools to understand peak oil impacts, localisation benefits, resilience to climate change etc. but then the result was my improved understanding of these issues which would help me in my research and community work. This was particularly helpful for the climate change adaptation project that I was part of at WOTR. But how do I communicate this to others? What evidence exists?

Three years back I got an opportunity to apply systems thinking and modeling for urbanization project at TERI. Kabir and I spearheaded a team of young researchers and developed a city model representing urban carrying capacity and people’s quality of life. We did lot of systems thinking training and use of causal loop diagrams to draw how we understood the city system. A two day training was conducted on system dynamics modeling. The project was successfully delivered and generated much interest among its readers. Then we embarked on economics of grassland degradation project. This was an almost impossible project. We had the task of modeling a grassland ecosystem, Banni, in Kachch. There were so many unkowns in the system that at one point we thought of giving up. But then we worked hard and got very good support from our colleagues at TERI and research support by (institutions) Sahjeevan and ATREE. That project was a leap for us to understand the potential of applying systems thinking and modeling to solve real world problems.

After doing further projects on application of systems thinking and then teaching it to over 1000 students, now I feel I have a better answer to the question, ” What is the advantage of applying systems thinking?”. What I am about to write is purely my interpretation of the benefits I see and is not coming out of a text book. So one must be critical.

Let me quote the great Albert Einstein here, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” I paraphrase this, “Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions and today’s solutions will create tomorrow’s problems.” This speaks volumes about our journey in life and how we adapt and live. If this is true then I think systems thinking and modeling has a big role to play.

I think the real benefit of applying systems thinking to real world problems and even for theory development is that, ” It could help us take decisions and design policies, rules which would reduce the recurrence and severity of the problem we are trying to solve”. This I think is the biggest (potential) benefit of applying systems thinking and modeling. This could be achieved through multiple pathways. It is not necessary that one needs to implement the solutions and only then the results would come. Even the improvement in our understanding about the complexity of real world is instrumental in improving the policy design and decision rules which we use to run our families, companies, society and nations.

The only rider I would attach is that one needs to be very very honest while applying systems thinking and modeling because unlike other disciplines (statistics, math etc.) this discipline depends a lot more on who is modeling and whose mental models really matter. The reliance on the honesty and capability of the researcher and actor is of paramount importance if the potential benefit of applying systems thinking and modeling is to be achieved, as I describe it.

I think my biggest strength, that I discovered, was not my ability to do advance math or expertise in software or field research. It was my ability to stay put, pursue systems thinking and work through my limitations over time. There were a bunch of my classmates and colleagues who, in my opinion, were far better at systems thinking than me. But today I am the only one using it for a living. And I am no scholar or genius like them.

So systems thinking and modeling is for people like us, who are ready to learn and build their capacities. Why? Because I think it is very useful. How?  Because, ” It could help us take decisions and design policies, rules which would reduce the recurrence and severity of the problem we are trying to solve”

… to be contd. See part III