What the hell is systems | complexity | cybernetics anyway?

Benjamin P. Taylor
2 min readJun 13, 2022

UPDATE — slides, video, notes now in edited post at https://www.linkedin.com/posts/antlerboy_systems-convening-systems-practice-systems-activity-6942014940794789888-c6He

Today I’m doing a one-hour talk (see https://q.health.org.uk/event/systems-convening-systems-thinking-and-systems-practice-with-ben-taylor/ — you can still join if you see this when I publish — and you can see the board at bit.ly/systems3board at any time) on how systems practices and systems thinking can link in to the wonderful social learning that Bev and Etienne Weger-Trayner identified in their Systems Convening book.

They discovered people who make a difference:

“You may not have heard about them; what they do is rarely in their job description. You may not even be aware of what they do; they tend to act as enablers rather than taking credit or seeking the spotlight. But they are here — working on sustainable change, across challenging silos, in complex social landscapes, amid changing circumstances. We call them systems conveners.

“Their stance is both visionary and pragmatic. They look at the social landscape in which they operate — an organization, a city, a community, a country, the world — and they see unrealized potential that exists across traditional boundaries and silos.”

So I had to try to define, again, what ‘systems thinking’ is for me.

This is what I came up with:

I start from two of my favourite quotes:

‘To understand is to know what to do’ Wittgenstein

‘I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of which story or stories do I find myself a part?’ MacIntyre

So. In a world of complexity, with coexisting nebulosity and pattern, that can be interpreted in unlimited ways and only partially controlled…

• distinctions, framings, ways of seeing emerge and allow us to make sense of things,

• to make the complexity manageable,

• and generate meaning and value, purpose, and legitimacy, power, and ethics.

• We shape our world, and our world shapes us.

• This means setting what we see and don’t see, the (un)discussable, cues for behaviour, etc.

Yet, the complexity, nebulosity and pattern, and multiple interpretability remain.

• Feedback can create learning shocks — what we thought, was wrong.

• The natural development or results of our ways of seeing and being can seem undesirable.

• Our existing multiple worlds of meaning can create conflict, exploitation, and confusion.

• And people have agency; they can never be fully predicted or controlled.

We can learn. To act differently, to reframe, to change our identity.

For me, systems | complexity | cybernetics is about working with this.

What do you think?

Join the discussion on LinkedIn — with link to all the materials, video etc https://www.linkedin.com/posts/antlerboy_systems-convening-systems-practice-systems-activity-6942014940794789888-c6He

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