Conscious Business

Whole-Systems Thinking

Systems thinking is an important step on the journey from dividedness to wholeness, from separateness to oneness. The concepts of systems thinking have been with us for decades and were made popular in organizational learning by Peter Senge as the fifth discipline, with tools and techniques aimed at destroying the illusion that the world is created of separate unrelated forces. Whole-systems thinking, one of the six conscious business principles described in the book, The Inner Journey to Conscious Leadership, is about co-creating, uniting, and integrating the separate fragments into the oneness of the whole.

Dividedness is a personal pathology where examples of living a divided life, according to the founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal, Parker Palmer, include refusing to invest ourselves in our work, diminishing its quality and distancing ourselves from those it is meant to serve; making our living at jobs that violate our basic values, even when survival does not absolutely demand it; remaining in settings or relationships that steadily kill off our spirits; or harboring secrets to achieve personal gain at the expense of other people. We pay a steep price for this dividedness, feeling fraudulent, anxious about being found out, and depressed at the thought of denying our own integrity. Dividedness and separateness do not support whole-systems thinking.

Researcher David Snowden in his recent Ted talk described ordered systems, complex adaptive systems, and chaotic systems with a wonderfully humorous example of organizing a party for nine-year old children in your own home. Snowden does on to describe new ways to approach complex change by nudging: doing small things in the present rather than promising massive things in the future that leads to continual disappointment. This requires an understanding of the small things that are going on, the day-to-day anecdotes of people’s existence understood through the voice of the people who tell them.

Engaging people, not in surveys or focus groups but the self-interpretation and exploration of the stories, is where the power lies. Snowden proposes nudging: doing small things in the present rather than promising massive things in the future that lead to continual disappointment. This type of fractal engagement helps with changing the day-day narratives of the present to achieve genuine change in our society.

Conscious leaders are natural systems thinkers with well-developed systems intelligence to complement high emotional intelligence and spiritual intelligence. They see the big picture and how the separate components of the system can be integrated into the oneness of the whole. Stakeholder integration is an important application of whole-systems thinking, where all stakeholders exist in relationship with the business and each other. The organization is a system operating within a system of stakeholders inside and outside of the organization. Considering society as a stakeholder that includes the environment at a local and planetary scale allows us to embrace the entire ecosystem in our thinking about wholeness and oneness.

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