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.