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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:

Events, Patterns, Systemic Structures

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:

Events, Patterns, Systemic Structures, Mental Models

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:

Events....Beliefs and Assumptions

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.


  1. Kelly Ritchey-Davoren

    I appreciate this post and what it is pointing to Chris (or at least what the post is pointing me to!)… Only just last week I was reviewing notes I had taken while listening to Peter Senge speak at a development session I attended this past year. The two primary ideas and practices I took away from that session were: the emerging field of “awareness-based systemic change” (which are underpinned by the beliefs and assumptions we individually/collectively hold); and the practice of how to enable that individual/collective awareness by “listening to the whole” through the art of engaging in authentic dialogue (aka: per my notes “collective awareness of the collective by/with the collective being in dialogue”). I believe that is what you are pointing to here as a continued practice at Decurion.

    For me the practice of engaging in this this type of solution discovery process, versus the more “simplistic” event or even pattern-level problem-solving, required an increased level of maturity and discipline/patience (generally good things to be developing) from me and the groups I was working with. Initially, however, they just took a bit longer and were not as immediately gratifying as applying a “fire-fighting” approach (especially to an operator that feels like they’ve been a firefighter Battalion Chief most of their career!). The real practice work for me was discerning how to “solve for at least some of the problem now” (IE: guest-facing must haves) while remaining disciplined to the sustainable awareness-based change process required to solve/prevent thousands of “fires” in the future.

  2. Becoming a systems thinker takes time, discipline and focus but is so worth it. Along with Senge’s work, some of the best insights I have come across are Meadows’ Thinking in Systems and John Gall’s Systems Bible. Deep fluency and a mark of true understanding is found in those who are able to zoom in to see the details and get their hands dirty while easily being able to zoom out and keep the big picture strategy/goals/vision in mind. This level of mastery is not easy or often even incentivized but being able to see second, third…tenth order consequences is a huge competitive advantage…

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