“Seeing the Impossible” or “The Impossibility of Seeing”: Five Obstacles to Systems Thinking

By Piero Mella.

Published by The Social Sciences Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

Systems Thinking is one of the most powerful tools of knowledge and understanding because it teaches us to devise models that are among the most effective for improving our intelligence.
Systemic models that can capture dynamism, repetitiveness, recursiveness and memory (Mella, 2008) allow us to “see the impossible”, to understand how situations evolve, to anticipate the future and “see things sooner”, to predict what we cannot yet “observe” in order to prepare us for what could influence our existence, to predict the future, to master complexity.
Nevertheless we should not overburden Systems Thinking with thaumaturgical powers, metaphysical capabilities, or ideal or exaggerated expectations.
We must be realists.
In many situations, no matter how much effort and energy we put into it, building effective systemic models does not seem possible, or is strongly obstructed by several conditions that make it practically “impossible to see” reality in all its interconnections and dynamics.
By using brief metaphors I want to touch on five of these conditions behind the “impossibility of seeing” that obstruct our systemic thinking with regard to understanding and predicting our world:
1) boiled frog, that is, the obstacle deriving from temporal slowness
2) networking effect, or the obstacle linked to the speed of processes
3) butterfly effect, the obstacle from distance in space
4) mono-directional view, the obstacle from observational direction
5) memory, the difficulty linked to structural, computational and temporal complexity
I will also indicate for each of these difficulties which strategies Systems Thinking proposes to neutralize them.

Keywords: Systems Thinking, Learning Organizations, Organizational Learning, Boiled Frog, Butterfly Effect, Networking Effect

International Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences, Volume 4, Issue 5, pp.319-332. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 1.245MB).

Prof. Piero Mella

Chair of Business Administration, Department of Management Research, Faculty of Economics, University of Pavia, Pavia, Italy

Born in Pavia, graduated in March 1969 with a first class degree in Industrial administration, in 1985 I won a chair as a full professor and lectured in Business Economics and Administration at the Faculty of Economics of Pavia. In 1986 I was elected Head of the Department of Business Research at the University of Pavia. From 1987-88 to 1992-93 I was Dean of the Economics Faculty at the University of Pavia. Since it was founded in 1990 I have been the scientific Director of the Masters in Accounting, Budget and Financial Control in profit organizations, set up by the University of Pavia. In 1997 I became Co-ordinator of the Doctorate in Business Research at the University of Pavia. In 2000 I created the scientific web site www.ea2000.it. My interests also deal in the fields of Complex and Holonic Systems and of Networks. In 1997 I have proposed the Combinatory System Theory, described at the web site: www.ea2000.it/cst.

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