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So. There are a few people around the systems thinking community - often the most deeply engaged and expert - who share one or more of the following traits:

  1. ‘expert’ orientation, loving to correct and lecture people about what’s ‘right and wrong’ in the field (this has a major form - blanket statements about whole areas of thinking or society - and a minor form - correcting particular aspects of method or thinking)
  2. lack of social sensitivity to understand when they are being overweening and their ‘how they say it’ is overwhelming their ‘what they say’…
  3. a tendency to bang on about one bete noire (in terms of an issue which is absolutely central and that nobody else, in their mind will ever understand - or a method that they think solves all problems) to the exclusion of other issues, often repeatedly creating the conditions of (1) or (2) above. Some of them might be more committed to the rant than the cause…

…there may be one or two more aspects to this condition, which I shall call Systems Curmudgeon - but you all probably recognise the character (and we are all probably shifting uncomfortably, aware that some of this applies marginally to us… I know I am…

Naturally, these people seem to be particularly useful in a variety of ways - the experts are genuinely expert, the bees in bonnets are usually based on an important truth, there’s an element of being the conscience of the movement, and agents provocateurs can provoke people to think, to reveal their true limitations etc etc…

And, of course, they do some damage to themselves and to the credibility of the whole concept, the forums and organisations they inhabit, the enthusiasm of people who would like to learn, etc etc….

So some questions arise: - is this just a normal distribution of passionate, bee-in-bonnet people? Or is there something special about ‘seeing in ways others don’t’ / ‘carrying the light of systems thinking through the wilderness which encourages this tendency? - does this damage the 'cause’ or reputation of systems thinking? - is there any way to moderate or discourage this kind of tendency, use the positive without the negative?


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      Great video!

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        Bravo Gene!

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        Well put Ben!

        My theory is that systems theory initially attracts people who consider themselves let down by a system of some kind. Some of them are the kind of person who can’t accept that they are sometimes responsible for the bad luck coming their way. Believing a system to be the cause removes personal responsibility. In short systems thinking attracts a set of people who have trouble believing they have shortcomings. It’s self selection.

        Some of these people are so energetic - psychotic to a degree . Normal folk just give up: they diagnose these as destructive people who won’t listen and will never change.

        Look at it from another way: how many people who believe “the system” has dealt them a good hand join systems thinking groups? I may have been to the wrong events, but it seems to me that the privileged, beautiful, dashing, articulate and charming seem to thin on the ground in these type of systems thinking.

        The starting point for many “systems thinkers” is that something is going wrong. Amnogst this group is a set of people who don’t help themselves.

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          I’m trying to stay out of this discussion for a bit, but/and ‘LOL’ is overused - this phrase from Alex genuinely made me laugh out loud “I may have been to the wrong events, but it seems to me that the privileged, beautiful, dashing, articulate and charming seem to thin on the ground in these type of systems thinking.”

          [There is something, isn’t there, which shows that people who have done well by the system genuinely believe that ‘life is fair’… and vice versa. I hope we don’t have to get too deterministic about this, though]

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          The available positive output of deep systems understandings is a new synthesis. I have heard great engineers talk about the leap of faith needed to move from the model-as-understood to the model-as-implemented.

          If the model that some great mind can see never gets implemented or doesn’t work as intended in one of a myriad ways, there is double grief: the grief of the unsolved problem and grief of the creative synthesising mind.

          In trying to empathise with these effects, it does not make a whole load of sense to “keep the good bits”. If you look at Bitcoin for example, it either works and improves itself in the real socio-technical world or it gets forgotten so fast. There are lessons that were learnt from predecessor systems but they were learnt by the cognoscenti experts not by for instance banks or politicians. Oh and the relevant experts often lacked social skills to an unprecented extent and this was not unconnected to their ability to produce genuinely new stuff.


          I don’t think this makes sense in the terms stated, though it often really really seems that way.

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            What thoughts do you have about: 1. overcoming these traits in ourselves? 2. helping others who wish to overcome these traits in themselves? 3. preventing these traits from derailing an otherwise positive activity when others are unable to acknowledge/grow through them?

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              Ben: “is there any way to moderate or discourage this kind of tendency, use the positive without the negative?”

              One way to moderate and discourage is to not take part in these kind of groups dominated by the Systems Curmudgeon® and spend time and energy elsewhere.

              I found a reference to this in a paper on Place Management:

              Jessop, B. (2002), Governance and meta-governance in the face of complexity: on the roles of requisite variety, reflexive observation, and romantic irony in participatory governance”, in Heinelt, H., Getimis, P., Kafkalas, G., Smith, R. and Swyngedouw, E. (Eds), Participatory Governance in Multi-level Context, LeskeþBudrich, Opladen.

              Unfortunately I can’t get hold of it – but I love the title…. its good enough.

              I especially like the reference to “romantic irony” and requisite variety: the notion that irony has a place in systems practice and that irony exists in a communication channel

              My art education exposed me to both cybernetics and irony. I wrote an essay on whether Jeremy Dellar’s winning of the Turner Prise signalled a death of irony. I found that there are varieties of irony: plain Socratic irony - saying the opposite of what you mean to provoke questioning in the listener, Romantic irony used by the likes of Swift where the reader was complicit in the irony and or course Post-modern irony - there’s no truth to be ironic with.

              SC®’s with backgrounds in hard science and engineering (don’t they all?) may find the playful use of irony highly annoying, but it’s interesting that Jessop, B. (2002) puts it together with reflexivity and meta-governance.

              To accompany Systems Curmudgeon® I like to propose Post Ironic Art Curmudgeon®, an equally annoying character: equally verbose and pompous. (He perhaps works as a professor of Art somewhere near a city near Stockport.)

              Let’s – as a thought experiment – place the two Curmudgeons as binary opposites. In between we have a middle ground where playful irony is an acceptable rhetorical trope acceptable in everyday communication. A place where ambiguity is not only tolerated but accepted as an essential pre-requisite for effective reflexivity or communication about communication.

              Part of both Curmudgeons' make up is a kind of extremism where the theory of communication is always to the fore, where expert knowledge has to be displayed in every utterance and action in order to “teach” people and remain “authentic”. They tend to become people with “very few friends” and tend to join social groups defined by clearly defined understanding of ideas and clear heirarchy.

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              Why do you think they are grumpy? Are they not justified in suspecting that the world is not as it ought to be? And complaining about it? Then again, they may just be hiding their secret joy of having something to curmudgeon about. Nothing self-defeating about that. ST, for all its other uses and advantages, is sufficiently complex, many-faceted and confusing that it provides a very attractive and convenient vehicle for people with these desires and tendencies you complain about. A way for some people to pursue their particular happiness? As soon as you think you recognize this in some participant, you have the choice of ignoring it, or helping their quest (making them more happy? or is that not a valid ST pursuit?) by pursuing your own happiness in confronting them and finding ways to prevent them from getting in the way of pursuing yours. Which could be self-defeating if that’s what they are here for… Another ST challenge? Not sure if somebody who wishes to overcome these traits will look to ST experts for help, though: they may suspect there are others in that crowd with the same afflictions?

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                P.s. So ….

                In politics and social life in general, any claim to exclusive or even more powerful insight and synthesis is not the way to make friends and gain influence. BUT we live in particular times when the prophetic stance of “you lot have lost the plot chaps” is obviously needed. It seems a bit back to front to require our prophets to be expert facilitators of social change: someone else can do that. And whether we think the prophets that we do have are voicing something we might need to hear is absolutely the point.

                A colleague voiced this for me last week. His observation is that I push people further than they are prepared to go. Fair enough, but the claim that in doing so I limit my effectiveness is more contentious because it implies a judgment about the system and its trajectory.

                In the previous note I wrote of the leap of faith. I think the point is that you cannot have half a leap of faith. Getting people a little way across the leap is a nonsense. And people (the great majority) who cannot see how a system can work differently are permanently disadvantaged, not just a little bit and for a while.

                So. The question about curmudgeonly is about what it is like to live with something that other cannot see, perhaps for decades. I don’t want my prophets smoothly spoken and accommodating.

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                  Is this all just a kind of reverse / upside-down argument from authority wrapped in postmodern irony – to dismiss, excuse or discourage engagement with certain ideas or concerns b e c a u s e they seem to come from someone we can label ‘curmudgeon’? Way to go guys… Let’s stick to the issues, tolerate style differences? And let the pompous curmudgeons join the trolls in making fools of themselves? Signed, Candidate Non-Systems Thinking Expert Don'tConCurmudgeon Abbé Boulah. (CNSTEDCC)

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                    Do some of these tendencies arise because SC® don’t see themselves as part of the system, perhaps as NimbleMonkey suggests “SC®’s with backgrounds in hard science and engineering (don’t they all?)” are more likely to see systems like this?

                    If a practitioner reflects on their action as part of and within the system, they can see how how the tendencies you mention don’t help. I’m sure we can encourage this reflection, and I’m a hard science person. (maybe ex….)

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                      Points two and three probably to me :-)

                      I think STs want to be understood but don’t realise that they are their own worst enemies in the sense that they hide behind obfuscating language and then wonder why others don’t get it!



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                          I’ve not seen this before Gene – giving it close attention. First impressions good

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                        I’m now worried that this term might gain currency :-o

                        funnily enough, systems curmudgeon is already googleable - mostly with reference to systems developers/admins etc eg: https://www.linkedin.com/pub/systems-curmudgeon/20/458/22

                        Since posting this, I’ve had the experience myself (or recognised it in myself?!) several times: - attending a business growth course (which brought back memories of school and my religious attendance at university lectures - one per year, without fail!) - sitting hard on my hands, biting my tongue and trying not to say ‘all this received business orthodoxy is crap and deeply, deeply unsystemic! There’s a better way… ….and not being able to stop some of it from leaking out… - responding to the genuine positivism about 'holocracy’ with a curmudgeonly response - feeling that, in at least two business meetings last week, I was the only one who understood, or was capable (at that moment)… of the systemic level of understanding I was trying (and failing) to get across…

                        Help! Is it a disease? Is there no going back? I’m young still!! Too young to retire and write the modern equivalent of grumbling letters to the Times… what do you do when you know everyone else is wrong??

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                          Crosslinking to ‘why do systems populists tend get it wrong’? (despite the enormous strengths of some of their insights…) https://model.report/s/uhlcd3/_/comments/e4egln#c_e4egln

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                            There’s been a useful discussion within SCiO about ‘barriers to systems thinking’ (see also https://model.report/s/geiurx/systems_thinking_and_the_organisation_of_organisations_why_are_consultants_behind_the_curve about consultants and systems thinking), which raised the issue of systems thinking being countercultural and this having a real impact on the brain/fear/pain function of the systems thinker.

                            This reminded me that one part of ‘surviving as a systems thinker’ is definitely about deliberately changing your attitude to rejection. (This is certainly true as an internal employee - I didn’t have much joy with that in Hammersmith & Fulham, PwC or Capita! - I totally fell into the trap (honestly) and wrote the chief exec of LBHF a 17-page memo on why he and every manager were Doing The Wrong Thing…)

                            There’s a good fun little think out there called Rejection Theory - www.rejectiontherapy.com (cards available in the RedQuadrant office if you’re ever there and want to borrow) - based on the premise that our brain associates rejection with death, this is about deliberately getting rejected (in small ways) on a daily basis for 100 days (e.g. haggle at a supermarket checkout, ask your local neighbourhood restaurant for a kitchen tour…) - things small enough not to actually get you in trouble, but meaningful enough you’d be please if you weren’t rejected.

                            Personally, I have to say that some of the things which have helped me most in life include political canvassing on council estates, and standing in Hammersmith Mall asking the public what they think of the council…

                            I think it’s much like learning to cope when people are firing guns at you - isn’t it one of the Malcolm Gladwell books where he points out that in police shootings, accounts are so very wildly divergent partly because peoples' brains literally shut down large sections? But that military training includes acclimatisation, so you can start to function under this kind of pressure.

                            And then, one interesting part of the behaviour of Systems CurmudgeonsTM is perhaps that they’ve rather become addicted to the thrill of rejection?

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                              cross-linking to ‘the curse of knowledge’ https://model.report/s/ilgcpa/the_curse_of_knowledge