Transformation Needs Fresh Perspectives


One of my great interests is the meaning, in both theory and practice, of transformation. What makes it different? And how is it relevant to the current challenges of the global problematique? My research led me to the view that transformation cannot be understood within the dominant paradigm of narrow cultural views vying for supremacy in providing ‘the answer’. An inclusive holistic viewpoint is needed.

Systems Thinking for a Turbulent World: A Search for New Perspectives describes my personal learning journey over several decades working with assertions of absolutes and seeking to place them in a perspective of relationship and pattern. I call this ‘open holism’. The book addresses eight attributes of the current paradigm which are locking us into ‘business as usual’ even when we think we are solving global problems through pursuing the sustainable development goals. Each chapter addresses a different basic assumption that dominates current attitudes, policies and actions and offers new perspectives, concepts and practices to help shift the paradigm.

There are two aspects to this. First, a holistic approach challenges us to identify the unique nature and the particular value of every specific standpoint. Second, openness requires that we are not confined to any single point of view. Relative viewpoints, taken as absolute, will inevitably be contradictory and in conflict. The require­ment to be true to what is intrinsic and useful in each of them denies any of them an absolute truth. Further, their proposed relationship in some more inclusive overview will inevitably contradict the logic of any one of them. The apparent contradictions in this kind of holism are what makes it hard to access from the positions of specialisation.

Foundational for this approach are three fundamental threads of human activity to be braided together to shift the goals from sustainability to regeneration. I see them as (1) acknowledging the 1st person “I am inside any process, however, technical”, (2) ways of combining different forms of knowledge in more complex patterns that evoke the power of transformation, and (3) prioritising practical wisdom over fragmented action or exclusive theory. Taking these three strands, here is an overview of the key structure of the book.

The first thread is highlighted by using as a metaphor a twelfth century tradition of spiritual development, the stages of ox herding. You and I are the ox herder. The second thread is a set new concepts and interpretations of concepts that integrate pieces of knowledge that are usually disconnected. These are the ox. The third thread is that this journey was conducted over fifty years, not in an academic setting, but in the context of facilitating individuals and teams of people tackling difficult, complex real-world problems that require the application of systems thinking, foresight and creative intuition. You are invited to reflect on your own experience as your third thread.

Chapter 1 – Healing Our Fragmented World

Paradigm Issue – Dominant linearity mindset in contradiction to the circularity of the real world.

Step 1 – Seeking the Ox

Things are not working and provoke a search for something better – enhancing systems thinking.

In a fragmented world of, on the one hand, constant change and turbulence and, on the other hand, intractable failure to change, it becomes clear that what has served for the last three hundred years is unable to address the disruption and complexity we are experiencing and piling up for the future. Systems thinking has been a promising field of integration, but has been unable to move into the mainstream. Increasing the resources invested in specialized and compartmentalized bids for solutions simply exacerbate the problematique.

Chapter 2 – Rehabilitating the observer

Paradigm Issue – Domination of objectivity eliminating first person and other ways of knowing

Step 2 – Glimpsing the Ox

An approach is discovered – namely including the observer as legitimate.

Developments in physics, neurobiology and second-order cybernetics have highlighted that there are effects from human consciousness which, if overlooked, lead to unintended consequences. One of these is the abdication of ethical responsibility to the intractability of ‘the system’ rather than reflective examination of our limited assumptions about what is going on. We need the knowledge of science, but we need also to reframe this in a second-order way. Consciousness needs to be factored in. We can no longer hide behind the profession or the door into the office.

Chapter 3 – Reperceiving the Future

Paradigm Issue – Domination of mechanical clock time and resulting sterility of decisions about the future

Step 3 – Seeing the Ox

A promising clue is found – understanding of the future needs to be reframed.

As well as taking the present into account we also have to take the future into account. But planning has proved limited in a turbulent world and both survival and greed keep the short term uppermost. More powerful methods of foresight and anticipation have been developed, but they all suffer from the cultural conditioning regarding the nature of time. The promising clue is that time, space and dimensionality have to be considered differently. This leads to the idea of future consciousness which is awareness of the future in the present moment, a moment much greater than the instant now.

Chapter 4 – Anticipatory Systems Are Different

Paradigm Issue – Domination of feedback evidence from the past blocking emergent insight of feed forward from the future

Step 4 – Catching the Ox

Now another view of system is possible – upframing the significance of anticipatory systems in an expanded present moment.

This reframing shifts the interest in both systems and foresight to the concept of the anticipatory system, a form of system with future awareness built in. It far more grounderd than planned futures or scenario exercises. However, the development of anticipatory systems thinking still need upgrading into the frame of second-order cybernetics. The role of the observer in the anticipatory systems leads to the new idea of the Anticipatory Present Moment (APM) in which systems, futures and consciousness are integrated.

Chapter 5 – Cultivating Decision Integrity

Paradigm Issue – Divorce of fact and value destroys integrity in policy, decision making and action.

Step 5 – Taming the Ox

The meaning of decision making is changed – harmonisation of the inner and the outer through integrity.

The thinking now has to translate in decision making and action. But our culture is dominated by economics and financial calculation the forms of decision making that are institutionalized and are no longer fit for purpose. To harness the new thinking for effect, an approach we call decision integrity is needed. The challenge is that the very nature of complex turbulence is that there is no secure logical foundation for action. We are confronted by undecidable questions. This is where the 1st person (you and I) come in. We have to take responsibility with a real ethical stance and not hide behind moral excuses.

Chapter 6 – The Co-Creative Way

Paradigm Issue: Domination of individualistic and competitive authority over collaborative intelligence and creativity

Step 6 – Riding the Ox

The insights illuminate collective intelligence – the application of participative repatterning.

Being left to our individual capabilities suffers a huge gap between our miniscule integrity and the massive scale of the global challenges. So when we have caught the ox we have to ride it together to ensure intelligence beyond the traditional ‘hero’ leader. The practice challenge is to carry out the new decision thinking in clusters of collective intelligence that are able to get a better grasp of the multi-factor multi-dimensional character of the turbulent world and together have the power to act. This requires new techniques of pattern thinking inspired with the creativity to keep shifting to new patterns for emergent need rather than clinging previous success. Co-creation is the name of the game and participative repatterning is the method.

Chapter 7 – Transforming in the Now

Paradigm Issue – Alienation and manipulation of the self, suppressing development of authentic human beings

Step 7 – Sitting Naturally

The realization of wholeness – all is now in the present moment of the system which includes us.

At this point we could have achieved significant steps, but we often overlook the essence of the search from which we started – wholeness. It may seem that trying out different ways of thinking and perceiving is difficult and disruptive, even alien to our nature. But it turns out that actually the difficulties we have are much more rooted in the limited and disconnected ideas and viewpoints we have been educated in. And this suits certain people of power who sustain that power with divide and conquer the mind and increase bewilderment with planned inconsistency. Just sitting dispassionately in the face of this allows inherent suppressed and distracted consciousness to emerge and reconnect with the quality of wholeness that is inherent in our awakened intelligence and that multiple perspectives are more likely to lead to wise policies and actions.

Chapter 8 – Natural Systems Thinking

Paradigm Issue: humanity fragmented and disjointed from self, nature and planet

Step 8 –  Transforming with Helping Hands

We can release the systemic capacities we need because they are latent and can be released.

Transformation emerges as a natural process in which our deeper intelligence can handle the interconnected systemic nature of the world, can anticipate in the present moment patterns of the future and can, through sensitivity to context and with committed action, select from those future potentials actual steps which are creating a better world. Systems thinking for a turbulent world is natural systems thinking. The catch is that that, starting from where we are, we have to work at learning new patterns of perception, new tools of thinking, new methods of collaboration and new states of mind not appreciated by the cultural momentum.

In this book I have documented some aspects of my own learning journey in which I hope readers will find occasional nuggets of useful insight, perspective and practice.

Anthony Hodgson is currently a trustee and research director of H3Uni – A University for the Third Horizon, a research fellow at the University of Dundee, director of Decision Integrity Limited and a founding member of the International Futures Forum. He has a B.Sc. in chemistry from Imperial College London and Ph.D. in systems science from the University of Hull, Centre for Systems Studies. He has over 30 years of experience as a consultant facilitator in strategy and foresight and participates in the Transforming Capacity Steward Team of the Forum.  Anthony is also author of Ready for Anything Designing Resilience for a Transforming World.

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