The Beauty of Systems Thinking: Context Sensitive Action

This week I have been preparing a one-day workshop on sustainability for what I think could well be the most important dialogue group in Latin America. This is a group which meets every two months, and consists of business executives from some of the largest organisations in South and Central America. I am not aware of any others like it, and I welcome news from readers if you do know of any others. I will of course be writing about this group after the event, but I thought I would share some of my thinking that I will be discussing with them.

I was recently alerted to this wonderful video via @johncoghlan69 on Twitter. It is discussion about systems thinking in education, but of course is also about systems thinking in the business world, and how our creativity and ability to think of systems as a whole is restricted due to how we educate children at school.

At the heart of this video is the issue of the limitations of analysis. Analysis means to separate the whole into parts and to study each part separately. In the clip Russel Ackoff explains:

If you look at how a child tries to understand something for the first time, they take it apart, they then try to understand the behaviour of each part taken separately, and then they try to aggregate the understanding of each of the parts into an understanding of the whole. That’s analysis.

Analysis became the dominant mode of thought in the western world for almost 400 years. Even today we use analysis and thinking as synonymous terms. That’s the way we manage. We take corporations and schools apart, into departments, and different disciplines, and try to run each one, and then aggregate them into a whole. You can not explain the nature of a system by analysis. You can reveal its structure, and say how it works, but you cannot say why it works the way it does. Explanation does not lie inside of a system.

We can learn all about ice, but nothing about water. To understand why something works, as opposed to how it works (analysis) you use synthesis. You need both, and they are both important.

The performance of the whole is never the performance of the parts taken separately, but is the product of the interactions, and therefore the main managerial idea introduced by systems thinking is that to manage a system successfully you must focus on the interactions of the parts rather than their behaviour taken separately.

I can strongly recommend watching the video. I have written quite a lot on this blog about the philosophy and teachings of Henri Bortoft, and how his work leads us to a much more profound understanding of the relationship between the parts and the whole, and this dynamic way of thinking allows us to better understand dynamic organic systems. But in this article I would now like to write about a very wonderful example of this kind of thinking in practice, which is Push-Pull farming in Africa.

A mature field. Napier grass (on far right) is planted on the borders of a field, with
desmodium planted in between the rows of maize. (Photo: ICIPE)

This case study comes from Craig Holdedge’s paper Context-Sensitive Action The Development of Push-Pull Farming in Africa. The traditional problems of chemical insecticides have been that they are expensive for poor farmers, they increase dependency on outside aid, and lead to increasing pest resistance. A solution began to emerge from the work of Thomas Odhiambo who in 1970 founded the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE).

Their solution came about by close and careful observations of nature as a whole, and the context in which farmers were working. Without going into the biology or the chemistry, the solution was to intercrop maize with molasses grass which is also surrounded by napier grass. The molasses grass naturally “pushes” the pest stemborers away while napier grass “pulls” and subsequently traps them. No need for insecticides at all. By 2011 over 40,000 farmers using the push-pull method, mainly in Kenya but also in Uganda and Tanzania.

Scientists wondered if they could find a plant to replace the molasses which people could eat, thus making the lands more productive. Nothing could be found, but a legume, silverleaf (Desmodium) was found which was a good fodder crop for cows. Additional this had the advantage of improving soil quality by enriching the soil with nitrogen. Silverleaf is also a suppressant of striga (a weed) which led to even greater maize yields.

Photo: ICIPE

Holdrege notes the following reasons for the success of this project, such as:

Partnership not control – Scientists working with farmers

Attentiveness/Observation – roots in countless observations made by ecologists and entomologists about the relations between plants and insects – attentiveness to the concrete situations and concerns farmers

Ideas/Insight – monocultures attract insects and weeds

Interest/Compassion – not developed out of self-interest but to help farmers Cultivating Relations – continued cooperation remains essential

I talk a lot about Jung’s mandala, of how we in the West are dominated by an analytic way of knowing, whereas we also need to develop our seeing, intuition and feeling modes of knowing. I also talk a lot about how our mental models affect our thinking and creativity, and in this case study we see both of these elements in play.

One of Holdrege’s great quotes is that “we need to learn to think as a plant grows”. He concludes his paper with a discussion on the importance of understanding wholeness:

It is not contradictory that an approach that is specific can also be holistic. In fact, that is crucial. The specificity grounds the approach and holism relates to the effort to establish and orchestrate relations that mutually support each other. Through such activities, synergies arise that give the work a kind of organic integrity and resilience that characterise a living organism. Because human beings—their ideas, feelings, goals, and concrete actions—are part of this emerging social-ecological organism, its character is highly dependent on the ability of people to perceive vital relations and to respond to new situations with creative and concrete ideas. In this sense a small, local project can be dynamically whole while a large and multifaceted project can be fragmented. It is not the particular content or the scope of the project that makes it whole; it is the quality of human engagement.

So here is a great example of systems thinking, of understanding the whole system, an understanding which has true wisdom, that to be sustainable is also to understand the importance of human values in developing an organic, resilient and truly liberating solution for both business and communities.

One response to “The Beauty of Systems Thinking: Context Sensitive Action

  1. That’s really a very good example of systems thinking! And Russel Ackoff is absolutelly right! We need to introduce those ideas to our teachers so they can change the way we educate our children! Thanks, Simon!

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