The risks of ‘seeing the whole’

Benjamin P. Taylor
4 min readAug 15, 2022


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Have you ever been encouraged to ‘see the whole’, or ‘think holistically’?

Have you read that it is critical for our #future that we ‘see the whole of the elephant’?

It’s true — but it’s not the whole story.

And because it’s a one-sided argument trying to rebalance a polarised, competitive world — arguments for ‘holism’ can undermine themselves by missing out the reality of people’s lives.

Here are eight things to think about re complexity | systemsthinking | cybernetics. They apply for management, innovation, society, ecology.

1 denying that we are part of a whole

It’s true: we are all connected. You can’t throw anything ‘away’ because there’s no ‘away’.

This insight can change lives — deeply, fundamentally. It can change organisations, and society — usually for the better.

But despite our best wishes and intentions, it somehow doesn’t change the world! Why?

2 believing we have seen the whole when we haven’t

‘Whole systems’ are messy because (little secret), they’re just different ways of seeing. More all-encompassing — if they are right. But it is easy to get them wrong.

3 assuming the whole that we see is real and concrete

Most attempts at ‘systems mapping’ are facile and ineffective. But as soon as we think we know the big picture, we project that onto the world — and can start to try to enforce our understanding on the world.

4 denying the realities of the parts

Seeing the big picture doesn’t help much if your life is still crap, if you are pulled into the horror of war or simply trying to fight for a living wage. Seeing the big picture doesn’t sweep away the reality of the parts.

5 assuming that seeing we are part of the whole creates a paradigm shift

We don’t live in a golden Age of Aquarius, because even if seeing the bigger picture gives us insight and power, we still have to work from our own actual conditions and those of others.

6 believing that we are speaking from a different paradigm

Having a flash of insight doesn’t mean that all your learning, framing, prejudices and hangups have suddenly disappeared. Your brilliant golden holistic worldview probably replicates all the problems you bring with you.

7 thinking the whole is perfect

Nature is perfect, beautiful, cyclical, dynamic. And, from many perspectives, brutal, ruthless, wasteful, messy. Both of these are real.

8 attempting to change the world based on all the mistakes above

Because of all the above, we can become mighty arrogant — we can think that our new perspective is more advanced — that we’re better than others. This doesn’t help.

Have you had that flash of insight where it all suddenly connects?

Did it go brilliantly, or… did things somehow get frustrating?



Benjamin P. Taylor