Systems thinking has long been a practice at Decurion. Peter Senge defines it as “a discipline for seeing wholes,…a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static ‘snapshots.’” For many years, we used this diagram:
When problems arise, we are often tempted to address them one by one. This is the firefighting approach that includes much energy but is ultimately exhausting. It represents an understanding and intervention at the “events” level. If we take a step back, we can see how certain events aggregate into “patterns.” For example, when opening theaters in the 1990s, we tended to complete construction moments before the first shows hit the screens. On each occasion, people felt great about how the team pulled together, but a little perspective revealed a negative pattern.
Taking one step further back allows us to ask what systemic structure is driving the pattern of events. Do we have the right people assigned to the right tasks? Are we beginning construction too late? Are we committing to an unrealistic opening date? How are we organizing ourselves and our activities such that negative events occur again and again? Senge’s insight is that each level of explanation is valid. It’s legitimate to look at events, at patterns, and at systemic structures. But if we want to make a lasting change, we need to intervene at the deepest level, the structural level.
Recently, I was reviewing Senge’s work and came across this version of the pyramid:
Senge defines mental models as “deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action.” They are powerful because they affect not only how we act but also what we see. As I thought about Decurion’s transformation over the last 25 years, it occurred to me that we had unconsciously used a pyramid of intervention with more levels. We could represent our best current understanding like this:
I am becoming increasingly convinced that our beliefs and assumptions determine what we’re aware of. This is the opposite of the scientific view, which holds that we begin with a blank slate, gather data, and then draw conclusions. It seems to me that once we reach adulthood—if not well before—we’ve assembled a whole set of conclusions about how the world is and about how we should behave in it. We then scan the horizon for data that will confirm these conclusions. Data that fall outside our set of beliefs and assumptions we often simply fail to see.
We began to shift Decurion by adopting a set of beliefs far from commonplace in the business world. We chose to view work as meaningful. We chose to treat people not only as a means but also as ends in themselves. We chose to believe that individuals and communities naturally develop. That set of beliefs opened to us the awareness of possibilities we had not seen before. They reframed the way we saw cleaning the bathrooms in theaters, the ways we engaged with young people in their first job, and, later, the way we thought about staffing.
As our awareness expanded, we saw that we needed to choose where to direct our attention. Putting out figurative fires generally involves a passive process in which events or other people direct one’s attention. We became conscious of what we were paying attention to and of the quality of that attention. Were we present to what was actually happening rather than lost in previously formed beliefs and assumptions? And we were focused on the systemic structural level or on each event as it arose?
We use our current version of the pyramid to emphasize two points. First, explanation and intervention begin with making explicit and questioning existing individual and communal beliefs and assumptions. Second, of the six levels, only the top is visible. Senge and others often speak about this chart in terms of an iceberg. Only events are above the waterline. It takes repeated acts of will to look below to find points of explanation and intervention that can make a real difference.