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To understand the world around, change your questions and think in systems

Recently, I had the opportunity to read two inspiring books dedicated to the mechanisms associated with thinking. The first one is “Change Your Questions, Change Your Life” written by M. Adams. The second one is “Thinking in Systems: a Primer” by D.H. Meadows. Both complement each other very well, together forming a guide on how to effectively sift through piles of information and interpret what is happening around us, as well as in the world.

I have written several times on my blog that at the beginning of every major change is a change in the way of thinking. But reading “Change Your Questions…” I realized that this is not entirely true. For a change in the way of thinking to occur, something else must happen first. This something is asking the right questions. In this context, “Change Your Questions” presents two attitudes towards asking questions: a judge mindset and a learner mindset.

In a given situation, a judge focuses on questions like: “Who is to blame?”, “What’s wrong with them?”, “Why should I care?”, “How can I prove I’m right?”, etc. Generally, they do not pay too much attention to understanding what happened (or is happening), but to drawing conclusions and passing judgments. In today’s world, this type of attitude seems to dominate. We grow up in its “culture”. We feel that it can’t be done differently, or that it can, but this is the most appropriate way if one wants to succeed (if I admit that something didn’t work out for me, it will surely discredit me).

The alternative to the judge’s mindset is the learner’s mindset. At the level of questions, it focuses on inquiries aimed at:

  • sober assessment of the situation (what actually happened?, what are the facts?)
  • taking a step back (examining what assumptions I make? – about the person, the situation; assumptions that may have nothing to do with the truth, yet influence my perception)
  • focusing on the feelings, thoughts, and needs accompanying a given situation (what do I feel, think, and want at this moment?)
  • determining the options for choice (what can I do?, what would be the best in this situation?).

As the author argues, overlooking the path of proper questions usually leads to a “zero-sum game” situation (someone has to lose), often accompanied by a lack of proper diagnosis of the problem. Consequently, sooner or later, it re-emerges, usually with increased intensity. Unasked questions are – according to the author – like unopened doors, behind which may stand what we really need in a given situation.

Thinking in Systems” draws attention to another common problem in today’s world, the way we perceive (and model) our world. We somewhat deceive ourselves by presenting the world as a series of cause-and-effect events, while in reality, it is a complex system in which we deal with the multidimensional interactions of various subsystems. These subsystems are constantly changing – partly due to factors beyond our control, and partly due to our own interventions.

It is our flawed model of the world that prevents us from predicting (the timing of) many events. When they do surprise us, we label them as “black swans”. Meadows convincingly argues that based on a wrong model, we – as humanity – set ourselves inappropriate goals. An example of this, according to her, is the excessive focus on GDP growth.

What I consider to be the greatest value of the book, however, is:

  • a description of the mechanisms that make systems surprise us,
  • a description of the properties of systems,
  • and a characterization of so-called leverage points, or places of intervention that can lead to systemic changes.

In the context of system properties, it is particularly worth noting that an excessive focus on the efficiency (productivity) of a system often leads to disturbances in its other important parameters, such as resilience, self-organization, and hierarchy. And this is a direct path to serious problems.

Regarding leverage points, it may be surprising for some that PARADIGMS are at the top of the list. As Meadows writes: “Paradigms lie at the foundation of systems. It is from them, from shared social agreements about the nature of reality, that system goals, information flows, loops, inventories, flows, and all other aspects of systems emerge.” For me personally, this is very convincing, also consistent with my own observations (I described them in “When paradigms shift, the world changes“).

In conclusion; what, in my opinion, connects both approaches – thinking with questions and systemic thinking – are HUMILITY AND CURIOSITY. This is a very desirable set for today’s times.

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