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On Systems Thinking, Innovation, and Tips for Building Effective Interdisciplinary Teams

I was born with an innate fascination for the intricate interconnection of things. Whether human, biological, economic, or philosophic -- making sense of and appreciating the beauty in well-designed systems, and exploring how to engage with and impact them, has unconsciously guided my attentions and activities for as long as I can remember. In college, the study of Philosophy, Psychology and Communications offered welcome opportunity to create the intellectual scaffolding upon which I would continue to flesh out a view of the interconnection of things in later years. But for decades the language of systems was for me largely unformed, and so as I launched my career and proceeded to play, and succeed at the game of business as I understood it, both the motivation and the means to slow down long enough to talk about complex emerging systems with colleagues and friends was absent.


                                    one end of sinking boat - folks not underwater happy hole isn't in their end


During the ‘80s, while working in the forestry, paper and mining industries, I was tasked with crafting constructive conversations to address declining natural resources by launching conferences like “Thick, Steep, Thin and Multiple Mining”, about how to profitably scrape the last micron of value out of a mining operation, and “Increasing Log Utilization” -- same issue in the sawmill. These conversations added value to the marketplace and as a result, the business I was responsible for grew. Expanding into the Medical and Electronics industries, I helped host early discussions about healing the hole in the atmosphere attributed to the use of CFC’s in the printed circuit board industry.  The business I was responsible for grew over 300% in just a few years and I learned a lot about business, macro-economic and environmental systems, but I had not yet snapped these pieces together with the human systems I had studied in school.

In the early 1990s, I and others discovered Peter Senge’s “Fifth Discipline” and began to apply his system’s thinking and organizational learning principles into daily management activities. Near the same time, Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce brought home the interconnection between the activities of business and the sustainability of our eco-systems, making clear the collision course we were on were we not to resolve the potentially irreconcilable conflict between capitalism and ecology. I remember noticing during that time that the language of systems was beginning to make its way into wider use, creating opportunity for a new kind of terribly interesting conversation. But at the same time, the desktop computing revolution was in full swing, the internet had come online, and once again, those systems conversations took a back seat as attention was focused on staking a claim in the explosion of growth these technologies spurred.



Those were heady times for many -- a veritable joyride of creativity -- full of so many transformative ideas, boundless optimism, heated battles, and so much fun. But for all of us, those years also brought awareness of a whole new set of systems level issues and concerns as the impact of technology enabled off-shoring and impending globalization came into focus thanks in no small part to Thom Friedman's "Lexus and the Olive Tree." Soon after, McDonough and Braungart published "Cradle-to-Cradle: Remaking the Way we Make Things," and slowly but surely the conversation about systems and the role of business in shaping our future came back in to focus, and for the first time, began to take wing.

Fast forward through the decade just past, as the internet and mobile technology have rendered connectivity nearly ubiquitous, and today it is tough to find a segment of the global population that doesn't recognize on some level the interconnection of things. Extreme weather leading to supply chain disruption and price spikes in everything from food to cars to microchips; the explosion of chronic illnesses sparked by environmental toxins; bloody conflicts driven by a lust for diamonds or minerals to fuel our growing hunger for computer-based technology; bank failures, job losses and whole economies floundering due to the poor judgment and greed of a few, and the interconnectedness of us all: regardless of our vantage point, each of us now comes into contact daily with the unavoidable awareness of systems at work. As more and more individuals connect the dots and share what they see, an explosion of systems thinking is taking place – and as a result, and with the support of the technology largely enabling this new awareness – a revolution is taking shape, and society is now in the process of a 21st century reboot.

This is good news! For as we expand our ability to see things as more of a whole we will be in an increasingly better position to do something about it. Admittedly, innovating to solve today's complex environmental and social problems will take a greater degree of collaboration and teamwork between multiple stakeholders and different disciplines than ever before.  This places more pressure on our ability to listen more effectively, to build shared vision across stakeholder groups more diverse than ever, and to establish deeper levels of patience and trust.  But there is plenty of great support available from those early leaders who have been pushing at the forefront of this movement for years already. As an example, this little video offers some great tips on how to support effective collaboration within an interdisciplinary team looking to drive innovative solutions to complex systems issues. Have a look, and pass it around. I'm sure you'll find it as helpful as I did.  And if you have tips you can share about what you're learning in your effort to tackle today's complex systems issues, let me know, and I look forward to sharing them with the community!



Thanks for this provocative blog post

Thanks for this provocative blog post, KoAnn. As a fellow student of psychology, business, behavior and sustainability, I've come to believe that it's not just one shift our culture needs to make to ensure our collective future. I believe it's closer to four or five shifts that are needed to bring more people to the place of systemic and holistic thinking. Here's a recent blog post I wrote on exactly that idea:

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