The Importance of Framing when Moving to Non-Linear Thinking

Today and tomorrow we all face a complex design challenge, in transforming existing organisations and economies from a linear to a non-linear economy. We must be able to thrive in a world of constant change and be able to create and lead agile organisations, No Straight Lines has six framing principles a philosophy and practice of how to design organisations and economic models for a non-linear world. – Alan Moore

I am a member of a number of discussion groups on LinkedIn relating to complexity, and one of the best is Systems Thinking World, created by Gene Bellinger. This is a private group and has many leading systems thinkers analysing problems from a systems thinking perspective.

The group is defined by the following premise and purpose:

Premise: We believe a systemic perspective provides the best foundation for creating effective approaches for dealing with challenges and shaping a better tomorrow.
Purpose: Create content and foster interactions which further understanding of the value of a systemic perspective and enables thinking and acting systemically.

However, recently it became obvious to Gene that there were certain problems in the evolution of the group discussions, and he has felt that these have been moving away from the main purpose of the group. This was triggered by him receiving the following comment:

I fear Systems Thinking World is just a reflection of the greater world of chatter…filling in time before we die. Or as we say, muddle headed wombats engaged in the dialogue of the deaf.

Gene then wrote:

After being offered the above perspective of Systems Thinking World by someone I greatly respect I decided a change was in order.

I have a huge amount of sympathy for this dilemma. A large number of group members appear to support this move to refocus on the main purpose and motives for creating the group, while also noting how the term Systems Thinking itself has no single agreed upon definition with practitioners coming from many different academic and philosophical backgrounds. Gene has summarised the many different methods into an overall System of Systems Methodologies, which was inspired by Michael C. Jackson’s work Creative Holism for Managers.

My point for writing about this is to demonstrate that Systems Thinking can be a quite confusing discipline for those looking to learn from it and understand how it can be implemented on a practical level. One of the members of Systems Thinking World made this telling response in the dialogue which has subsequently ensued:

I went to a Systems Thinking seminar with Peter Senge back in the 90s where there was a general bafflement and bemoaning about how this great understanding was still understood by only a few. It seems limited progress has been made in the intervening years. I have had several bemused conversations with high-ups in big-four consultancies who barely know about it all (and one of whom dismissed it as ‘academic’).

So how are we to cross this great chasm between the often rarified philosophical discussions of systems thinking and facilitating the transition to non-linear thinking for non-practitioners of systems thinking? This is absolutely no simple task, and for this reason I very much respect the ability of my friend Alan Moore who has created a way of framing the discussion with the following six principles:

  1. Ambiguity – learn how to gain a deeper insight into a complex world by engaging in systemic networked narratives as a form of diagnostic.
  2. Adaptiveness – learning to learn how to become agile in a world that is rapidly evolving.
  3. Openness – premised upon the insight that natures default setting is open, openness as a principle and practice offers new capabilities, higher organisational performance, trading models, amongst other benefits.
  4. Participatory cultures & tools – human nature is designed to work collaboratively. By designing organisational capability with this insight, executives and leaders can accelerate innovation, create breakthrough systemic change, re-define business models, offering a more empowering and legitimate form of leadership.
  5. Craftsmanship – how the concept and practice of craftsmanship is as relevant for the individual as it is for an organisation enabling a deeper, more finely tuned approach to learning and the craft of innovation, providing an ethical framework and values based approach to commercial and business practice.
  6. Epic – how to design for transformation, how to design for multiple outcomes, how to convert novel ideas into tangible reality, and assert the future.

Alan often works with people by taking them on a “deep dive” in his Transformation Labs. The whole concept of transformation or the journey of the transition of consciousness is entirely missing from the linear and traditional business thinking of the big four business consultancies, and for this reason they are unable to cross the chasm into non-linear thinking. Disruptive does not even begin to cover just how huge the change in worldview is. Alan was the keynote speaker earlier this year at the PINC conference in the Netherlands (People, Ideas, Nature, Creativity). Above is his video where he discusses the concept of no straight lines and it is well worth a watch.

Alan Moore Transformation Laboratories

It is one thing to have models and frameworks, but these are not enough. We have to help people with how they understand reality, and framing is a way of doing this which complements the systems models. People can get lost quite rapidly, and framing provides a map which can help people make sense of the conversation and understand where and when the new thinking can be applied in their lives and their organisations. Framing can help a conversation flow, and helps develop a shared understanding while honouring the differences between people at the same time.

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