Systems Thinking: Appreciating the Whole, and the Innate Tendency to Care

Today’s video is from Peter Senge, speaking about systems thinking in education.  Systems thinking, as described last week, focuses on the whole, and how all the elements of the whole interact with one another.  We tend to look at problems within the system and ask ourselves, “How do we correct this problem?” incorrectly thinking that if we correct the elemental problem, then the whole will be corrected.  More than likely, however, the correction will have an effect on another element of the system, causing another problem.

For instance, look at a company’s desire to increase revenue.  There are two main goals that are set out in order to maximize increasing revenue:  generate revenue, and decrease expenses.  There are five ways that a company can generate revenue from customers (not investments):

  • Welcome new customers
  • Cross-sell current customers
  • Upsell current customers
  • Maximize current customer utilization, and
  • Increase prices.

However, when you look at those five areas, there are funds that must be expended in order make those things happen.  As the old adage goes, “You need to spend money to make money.”  Therefore, decreasing expenses becomes a hindrance to generating revenue, and we’re back to increasing, and not necessarily maximizing, revenue.  The wisdom of this realization is seen mathematically, as well as from year to year.  Mathematically, IR (increasing revenue) + DE (decreasing expenses) = MR (maximizing revenue).  From a high-level logistical standpoint, DE = 0.  The key is “maximizing” revenue, which involves a whole different system than does simply increasing revenue.  The problem with maximization is that it’s not necessarily sustainable.  IR increases for the following year, and DE becomes even more strict.  Remember that one can only cut so far before an artery is hit, and the patient potentially bleeds out.  Prune a plant or tree too far, and you’ve killed it.

As for appreciating the whole, Senge says that there is also an innate tendency to care in each of us.  Interestingly, the appreciation of the whole refers to recognition, a cognitive function, and the caring element is affective.  The third element is that we can have an impact on others, and we do that through our actions, the kinesthetic element of learning.  Indeed, we become a learning organization:

Check out The Triple Focus: A New Approach to Education by Daniel Goleman and Peter Senge at