Overcoming Barriers: Part 2: The Systems Thinking World Discussion Group
Steven V. Schneider, Ph.D., CSAC, ICS. Volume 2. Issue 1. January 31, 2013
Abstract. Traditionally, the formal education we received did not encourage a wider context and mutual interaction which limited the development of a systemic perspective to solve problems. These are challenges that created barriers to learning the concepts, accepting the foundational basis, and applying system approaches; they are not familiar and requires a new way of thinking. Operationally, a barrier can be anything that interferes with developing a systemic perspective. Using my own journey to become a systems thinker a series of articles on overcoming barriers to understanding systems thinking is offered as a guide that worked for me. The first article introduced Systems Thinking World, Inc.(STW) which is the virtual home I continue to use as my main resource. An important component of STW is discussed here as an effective mutual-support learning tool. The group members helped break down some of the initial barriers that delayed becoming a more proficient systems thinker. It is hoped that this paper will provide a better understanding of how the group can be used in your journey to overcome barriers in learning and applying systems thinking.
Creating My Own Barriers
I enjoy doing literature reviews and thought I collected enough articles from which I could create a system approach to solve any problem. Many of the articles were not used because I understood very little of what I did read. I was making things more difficult by using an approach that had been successful in the past:
- I had an interest in learning about the foundations and applications of systems thinking, but my approach of self-study was not working.
- Reading textbooks, journal articles and visiting websites provided a collection of facts with little understanding of how to use them..
- A search engine, like Google Scholar showed many related organizations and websites where I could find even more information.
- When the name of a book or author was repeated in many web sites, I would read the book or find the author in a database. For example, Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline was recommended on many of the web sites I visited; so I read, but had difficulty following the book.
- I did not give up because, in reality, I understood quite a bit, but did not know what to do with the information. It was like reading an encyclopedia. I had collections of facts, but could not find a use for them; there was no context to associate with the information.
That is how my journey continued until an additional, unexpected barrier appeared. It happened while entering Systems Thinking and other keywords into search engines and databases. On each web page, other terms began to appear: I saw words such as System Dynamics, System Perspectives, and Organizational Systems to name a few. I assumed they were interchangeable and very soon, I had a long list of terms with an even longer list of questions; but there was still no context for the information. Without a context, I could not imagine how systems thinking could be applied and questioned whether I wanted to take this further. My journey had become an unguided trek into uncharted territory. Learning by myself which usually worked in the past, was now creating problems. I was still motivated, but knew the process had to change. By now it was clear that barriers to understanding systems thinking can show up when they are not expected and can take many forms. I was discouraged, as many others may be when first attempting to understand the concepts of ST. The experience did teach me a number of things:
- Even people who understand ST get confused at times.
- Lacking a universal definition for systems thinking, terminology is not always defined the same way throughout the literature. Unlike many other fields, ST is used across disciplines, some of which might be unfamiliar.
- The more I read, the more likely I come across variations in how terms are used.
- Variations in how terms are defined and applied can be a common issue; it does not need to be a barrier. Talking with other systems thinkers will help because the theoretical foundations of systems thinking are not exclusive to any one field (this will be explained in more detail later).
The discussion group was instrumental in the early stages of my journey. Using all the STW resources ensures that my systemic perspective develops within the context of my work which has kept my journey on track. However, the group discussions can serve many purposes that self-study could not. Among them are:
- Receiving an ongoing education by learning from people all over the world.
- Having access to articles, books, organizations, and web sites through member’s recommendations.
- The social network provides easy access to correspond with people who have common interests.
- Group members support each other.
I took advantage of all the benefits and continue to do so. The group is appropriate for anyone with an interest; I hope you give it a chance.
Overcoming Barriers Using the STW Discussion Group
The self-study process I used was disorganized, and lacked meaning. I was not sure what I needed or how to begin. In a sense, I created an additional barrier by defining what I believed was important when I did not really know. I inadvertently imposed limits on myself and caused theory and application to become disconnected. Self-study did result in one positive outcome. The haphazard web searches helped me find the discussion group. I rarely took part in online group discussions in the past, and did not intend to start. However, regular STW group participation showed me that the largest barriers I faced continued to be understanding the concepts and terminology; but following the group gave me much needed context.
During one of my first few visits, I read a description of the group’s purpose and it resonated like a personal invitation. I learned that the discussion group works “to create content and foster interactions which furthers understanding of a systemic perspective and enables thinking and acting systemically” (Bellinger, 2012a). Those words told me that if I was serious about reaching the goals I set, the group could help. I joined with the intention of only reading what others had to say. I did not think I had anything others would want to hear. I was wrong on all counts. This group helped me when I needed it the most and I continue to take advantage of the opportunities it offers. The benefits I continue to receive are why I want to share with others. I cannot deny a bias towards Systems Thinking World, but it is due to the benefits I received. While the information in this article is based on my own objective results, it might be more accurate to say I am subjectively objective.
I arrived at a point where my next decision would change the direction and outcome of my journey. I know that sounds melodramatic, but I believe that understanding how to apply systems thinking would be beneficial to many of the complex problems seen in my work. In addition, when something no longer works, it needs to be fixed. This time, I was in a better position to make an informed choice and I was motivated. Only one problem remained; I was still thinking about leaving the group. At times, people become fearful with making a change and I was experiencing fear. If this sounds familiar, remember that adopting ST is not the same as learning a new technique to use as needed (Schneider, 2012). Whether it was fear of failure, fear of success, or fear of being afraid did not seem to matter because something happened to give me a final push across the virtual threshold. This came in the form of a post that was written by the group’s host. It is a clear, but powerful statement. In part, it said:
“I wanted this discussion group to be the support mechanism that was missing during my initial 35+ year quest for understanding. I thought that it would be marvelous if those who shared my passion for Systems Thinking could share their learning and support the learning and development of others and possibly compress the learning cycle. And I still want it to be all those things” (Bellinger, 2012b).
It could not have been clearer.The STW Discussion Group was started so systems thinkers at all levels had a place to interact. I began to see the potential of using the group as a learning tool. It provided me with everything that was lacking during my solitary journey. It was easy to let my thinking lean towards a belief that all group members were far ahead of me in understanding and applying system approaches. The concerns I had were based on misinterpretations, but I was able to see the flaws in that thinking. To help you decide the path your journey can take, you might look at some of the concerns common to many members when we first joined. In my case, continued participation led to a number of realizations I had about the members and my place within the group:
Realization 1: We are all at different levels. I found that many of our group members were just beginning and joined me on my journey. I admitted to myself that there was much I did not know. Even more important, I was able to look at what I did know.
Realization 2: We all lack knowledge in comparison to others who have more. Initially, I felt intimidated and was convinced that others knew more so there was nothing I could add. The reality is that there are members who know less and others who know more; others knew the same as me. I also found that no matter what their knowledge and experience, everyone has something of value to contribute.
Realization 3: My lack of knowledge increased the value I placed on the discussions. As it turned out, there were many others in the group who knew much more. That turned out to be appealing because I was there to learn. I found our discussion group to have great value. There are discussions on just about any aspect of systems, and many people post links to other resources. Once I was comfortable, I even sent private messages to those who knew more because I wanted to know what they knew.
Realization 4: Systems terminology is used when appropriate, but there is little jargon. Nobody is required to start or reply to a discussion. It took a while before I did. The group is non-threatening and is there to help. Most posts use the simplest language so everyone can benefit. I also downloaded a glossary from the STW web site with which I could to look up words when needed.
Realization 5: You know what you know; the learning process builds over time. I started to look at systems thinking concepts as building blocks used to create a foundation. We all have to start somewhere. Our discussion group is inclusive with members who are willing to help. The fears and misconceptions I had were real, but not accurate (think about the difference; it might help you because it helped me). You now have a better idea why the STW discussion group was chosen.
I was at a point in my journey where what I did not know was clearer than what I needed to know. I found the answer in the discussion group. At first, I was not comfortable interacting with others in the group setting. I had concerns which turned out to be misconceptions, but I kept returning because the discussions contained a wealth of knowledge with perspectives different from mine. By reading the posts, I learned that the concerns I was experiencing are common; they also resolve if given the chance. Below are some of my concerns. You might want to compare them to any you have (or had):
- I needed guidance, but did not know what I was looking for.
- Everything was new and unfamiliar.
- I was not sure I could follow the discussions.
- How could I catch up to everyone else?
- I was sure there was nothing I could add.
All of the concerns are valid, but they gave me a starting point. If they interfere with your goals, like they did to mine, do not ignore them. An additional benefit of being a member of the group is having people who can help and it is worth it. The thought process I used while deciding to submit my first post was really an attempt to rationalize why I should not take the risk. Once my post was submitted, I began receiving replies and even private messages from others with similar thoughts. I was not torn down; I was being built up.
Members of the Systems Thinking World Discussion Group span all levels of ST competency. At first, instead of using their collective knowledge, I put them into categories in order to see where I fit in. That was not the best use of my time, but it says much about my confidence level. Many group members are very proficient; they seemed to be comfortable with the concepts and terminology. I later learned that these people not only had theoretical knowledge, but practical experience. They easily discussed models, simulations, and other things I could not yet define. The ability to apply systems thinking to solve real problems is important in developing a systemic perspective. I learned much from them, and in the beginning, felt threatened as well. These were people I initially tried to avoid.
Other group members had less knowledge and experience, but were still comfortable in discussing real world problems. They understood the importance of ST concepts, and models. They also understood the application of ST as compared to reductionist approaches. Naturally, I was also threatened by them. There was another category I created for myself because, as I said, I was convinced everyone knew much more. People in my category saw the benefits and need for system approaches, but did not understand all the concepts and terms. Fortunately, I found there were many more like me.
Being new to the group, I wanted to get a better idea of everyone else and how this mutual self-help group works. Instead, I projected onto the others what I could not have known by sorting everyone into subjective, self-defined categories in an attempt to feel more competent. It was not a waste of time because I was getting to know the other members and I learned some important things:
- Comparing ourselves with others, especially those we do not know could easily create a new barrier; feeling less than.
- It is true that I knew less than many others, but I knew enough to benefit from the group.
- At one point, the people who know quite a bit also knew less than others.
- Too much time was spent telling myself I did not know as much as others. To that, I really should have asked myself “So What?” The emotions attached to thoughts are often powerful and create our reality. When misinterpreted, they can cause unpleasant reactions leading to other self-created barriers.
- If the members of our group were all at the same level of proficiency, there would be much less potential to learn and develop. However, we are similar in our desire to further our understanding of systems thinking and our ability to think systemically.
- If there was only one thing I could recommend to new group members, it would be to learn within the context of a real life problem. Information without context is only a collection of facts that have no immediate purpose.
- The STW Discussion Group is a safe, non-critical learning environment where we can interact with other systems thinkers.
How it Works: An Example from the Discussions
Early in my journey, I became interested in integrating systems thinking into the educational system. I was sure that my lack of understanding in applying system approaches would put a stop to my goal. Further reading and especially this discussion group confirmed part of this. Many people who are new to systems thinking often forget that system approaches are best undertaken as team efforts, not solitary endeavors. I posted my dilemma to the discussion group and, as expected, received very direct advice with links to literature and web sites. What came next is an example of why this group is so important to me. I received a private message on LinkedIn from the director of STW and host of the discussion group, Gene Bellinger. Knowing my level of competency at that time, and using language I could understand, he directed me to information showing how my knowledge and skills, at that time, could be used to help achieve my goals.. Between the discussions and a private message, I learned that the most important skill I needed is how to ask questions.
The purpose of that example is to help you see that even beginning system thinkers can use system approaches and use the group to become more proficient. Of course, more knowledge is needed for more complex activities. Learning is a process that takes time to develop. A deeper systemic perspective requires more knowledge and skills. Now when I start questioning what I can or cannot do, I remember one word: Interdependency. There is interdependency among the parts of a system. Through the group, I realized that I could develop the system I envisioned, but needed help.
It is not the purpose of this article to present systems thinking concepts or theory. The Systems Thinking World web site is a great resource to find theoretical foundations and applications. It is important to understand that no matter what your level of proficiency, you can join and begin participating. This is because ST is not just concepts, terminology, foundations, and tools for problem solving. Like so many of the group members, it is likely you already think in systems (Schneider, 2012). That is often why we develop an interest in knowing more. Not knowing what more entails was a barrier I faced when my journey began. As you gain experience in the discussion group, you will gain the knowledge and skills you need as long as you work towards it. Take advantage of all facets of STW.
In preparing to write this article, I communicated with many group members. I was especially interested in knowing how they were able to follow discussions that used unfamiliar concepts and terminology. The collective responses were helpful in breaking down barriers in my own journey. They explained that systems thinking is not just another tool we can use to solve a problem. It is a way of thinking; of viewing the world. This concept is important because:
- The terminology will be easier to understand because we have a context for their applications.
- As we see the language of systems being used across different fields, their meaning becomes clearer.
- It is easier to see what we need to know and can find the information presented from basic to advanced levels.
Developing a Systemic Perspective
Systems thinking can sometimes seem counterintuitive as I discovered when I first joined the Systems Thinking World Discussion Group. As a new group member, one of the first things I expected was that others would teach me what I needed to know (the same as in my formal education). I asked the director of STW who also hosts the discussion group and he sent the following response:
“What I think is important is supporting the development of one’s capacity to develop an understanding of a situation to an extent where a strategy may be developed for addressing the situation with a high level of confidence that implementing the strategy will produce the intentioned results and there is not likely to be a myriad of unexpected consequences” (Bellinger, 2012a).
I assumed he refused to help. Now, I consider his response to be an important lesson; I just could not see it right away. My systemic perspective was not developed enough to fully understand his response. I interpreted based on how I was taught to learn in my formal education. When first learning ST, I asked others to teach me what I needed to know and I failed to make progress. The people who helped me were well meaning, but I ended up acquiring information they thought I needed to know. It was out of context and confusing. This might sound like semantics, but systems thinking is not what is taught. I made progress when someone helped me to develop a systemic perspective. To do this, I needed to understand how ST is used in the context of my work. Developing a systemic perspective required that I understand certain concepts and terminology. I really related to Russell Ackoff who advocated teaching as the best way to learn. I did make use of a guide who supported and facilitated my learning, but that helped only after knowing why I wanted to develop a systemic perspective. In that way, I was lead to the appropriate resources. Rather than memorize a glossary, I looked up or did research on concepts I was currently seeing in my discussions and readings. That is part of the context I needed. I know I left out quite a bit, but after knowing what I wanted, through trial and error, I found that this discussion group became my support and guide. That was the best way for me to acquire the knowledge and skills I needed. It also put me in a position of needing to do independent learning in order to respond to discussion questions.
I do not mean for this to sound simplistic or “the one way to learn.” It worked for me. This can be a very complex discussion if we all wanted it to be. However, the responses the group members write are based on their own interpretations and experiences. For me, there is nothing better than to be a part of this because as long as I participate, my ability to see things systemically continues to improve.
I had to understand that my goal was not to learn ST, but to develop a systemic perspective. This eliminated (or at least greatly reduced) the need to memorize a list of terms and study concepts presented in textbooks and articles. It was this group that showed me that context is a key part of a system perspective. It also helped show me what I needed to learn and when I needed to learn it.
Systems thinking encompasses a great deal of information. It is unrealistic to expect to be proficient in every aspect. Only you know what you need and this changes with experience and related knowledge; it is a process. What follows is one of the counterintuitive ideas discussed earlier. In general, nobody else can know the information you need, but there are exceptions. Using the earlier example about wanting to integrate systems thinking and education, the advice of others was welcomed. In that situation, a person who knew my strengths and weaknesses was able to suggest ways to further develop my systemic perspective. That would be another step towards being able to do more complex activities. Along my journey, there are certain things that would have been useful to know; possibly eliminating some barriers. Through the discussion group, the need to develop a systemic perspective became apparent. Now, I needed to know how.
Consider the following insights found on the Systems Thinking World web site (Bellinger, 2012a); they might help you:
- There are concepts and terminology that once understood, will help develop my systemic perspective (the importance of this led me to repeat this).
- The knowledge gained and systemic perspective needs to be connected to a context.
- need to have some understanding of basic systems concepts and terminology. Terms seen often in readings are most likely important; spend some time investigating them; generally, terms are often retained by use (reading, developing models, etc.).
- My journey to develop a systemic perspective will take many detours. This is a process that can take time. Regular participation in the discussion group is a valuable ongoing resource.
- I will know I am headed in the right direction, not when I amass facts, but when I see my systemic perspective evolve.
Benefits Reported by Group Members
Visiting the discussion group does not obligate you to join. I started by stopping by many times to read the posts and see the topics being discussed, knowing that becoming a member was my choice. I was able to make an informed choice. Earlier, I discussed my purpose of joining, but did not really talk about what membership has and continues to do for me. The benefits I received might be greater or lesser than what others receive and I thought it would help to get a wider perspective. I created a discussion topic which asked members if they have or have not benefitted from being a member of the group and to give examples. There were benefits that we would expect to see, and some I had not considered. The benefits spanned a variety of areas and while there was some overlap, they fell within three categories: increased understanding, assistance received, and resources. In order to get a better idea, some of the representative comments can be found below:
Benefits of Membership
- Explanation of concepts by people who want to help
- Powerful body of knowledge
- Increased understanding of how ST is being used
- Having a diverse group to share ideas and current project
- Access to a unique group of technical specialists within one place
- Provides a forum to learn about current trends and useful system thinking approaches
- Easy access to ST information in my field
- Increased my knowledge of other fields and how they relate to mine
- Advice on effective resources to improve understanding and application
- Material attached to posts in the form of files and links
- Widened perspectives through diverse international peers
- Able to compare and contrast areas of interest
- I benefit by knowing that this group exists
How we benefit often depends on how the group is used. We all have the option to just read what others say, reply to others, post our own discussions or any combination. Whether the group provides you with the same benefits or others that were not mentioned will not be known until you begin.
The STW Discussion Group helped to eliminate many of the barriers I faced in understanding systems thinking. It was not difficult to acquire a basic understanding of ST by finding textbooks and articles. The part that escaped me was how to apply what I learned. When I was new to systems thinking, I was not sure what I needed to know, how it can be applied, or even where to find the best resources. The discussion group increased my ability to learn and develop a greater appreciation for systems thinking and the systemic perspective. In addition, it continues to provide:
- A forum for understanding new perspectives.
- New resources
- The ability to easily network with people I would not otherwise meet
- A place for professional socialization
- Learning and working opportunities
Participation in the Systems Thinking World Group provides guidance and answers. More important are the questions that still remain. Because my interest continues to increase, I see more potential uses of ST which requires additional skills. Earlier, I mentioned that one criterion I use to judge the effectiveness of a resource or learning tool is the questions that arise from its use. The discussion group continues to help me understand there is more to learn; that means more questions.
The author has no personal relationship with and received no financial gain from Systems Thinking World.
Dr. Steven Schneider is on the faculty in the Department of Psychology at Capella University and has specializations in developmental disabilities and addiction psychology. He practiced psychology in inpatient and outpatient settings, was adjunct faculty in special education and psychology, and taught special education on the elementary, junior high and high school levels. Through Academic Skills, LLD, he publishes manuals on professional writing to help simplify the process of learning academic skills. Dr. Schneider’s current interests are related to Systems Thinking, the learning process, addictions, 12-Step programs, and spirituality. Systems Thinking is the thread that weaves all of these areas together.
Staff who worked on this article. Editor: Ivan Taylor, Reviewers: Gene Bellinger, Barry Clemson
Bellinger, G. (2012a). Adventures in wonderland.. Retrieved December 21, 2012 from http://www.systemswiki.org/download/Adventures%20in%20Wonderland.html
Bellinger, G. (2012b). This I believe. Retrieved December 21, 2012 from http://www.systemswiki.org/ index.php?title=Systems_Thinking_World_Group_Rules
Schneider, S. V. (2012, July). Overcoming barriers to understanding systems thinking. Systems Thinking World Journal: Reflection in Action, 1(2). Retrieved May 21, 2012 from http://stwj.systemswiki.org/?p=1217
Citation Details for this article:
Schneider, S. V. (2013, February). Overcoming Barriers: Part 2: Systems Thinking World Discussion Group. Systems Thinking World Journal: Reflection in Action. [Online Journal]. 2(1). [Referred 2012-02-04]. Available: http://www.linkedin.com/e/gntk15-h1jpmdrq4z/plh/http%3A%F%2Fstwj.systemswiki.org/Q7Wh/?hs=false&tok=0fqp1jiFYFBc1. ISSN-L2242-8577 ISSN 2242-8577