As my collection of Medium stories expands, it is perhaps wise to help current and future readers find their way.

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The question that keeps me awake is “What does it mean to be a systems thinker?”

This reflection guides me in a lifelong process of personal and professional development.

For convenience, I am grouping my posts here under four headings.

I’m not a great fan of the moniker ‘systems thinking’. It suggests that it is all just a matter of thinking, of intellectual constructs and tools. But a systems approach is in my experience first and foremost a matter of systems practice. Life is a ‘wicked problem’ that invites us to take a humble stance of beginner all the time…


A Systems Library, Vol. 17

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Donella Meadows’ Thinking in Systems is for many the first book on systems thinking they read. This is probably the only title in the field that deserves the status of bestseller. Yes, it’s a good book. It deserves to be read. Still, I am also going to be critical about it. Read on.

Donella Meadows died in 2001 at the age of 59. Thinking in Systems was posthumously published based on a draft manuscript that had been circulating for years. Diana Wright edited and restructured the material to make it publishable. …


The shiftN Papers

Our collaboration seen through the lens of organizational inclusion and exclusion mechanisms

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“We have at our disposal tools, notions, and efficacy, in great number; we lack, on the other hand, an intellectual sphere free of all relations of dominance. Many truths, very little goodness. A thousand certainties, rare moments of invention. Continuous war, never peace. We lack simple, democratic intellect for man.” — Michel Serres

In this longish piece I’m going to take a deep dive in shiftN’s organisational DNA. Readers unfamiliar with the orientation of this publication are invited to have a look at our introductory post.

This may look like a blueprint, but it isn’t. The image presented is not…


Launching the shiftN Papers

Reflecting on the experience of working in a fluid organisational setting

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The shiftN Papers (TSP) is a publication centered on the shiftN experience. ShiftN is (so to speak) a boutique consultancy based in Belgium. For the past 25 years we have operated as a loosely structured network of professionals. We do not claim to possess the ultimate blueprint for self-organisation. But there is no doubt that our attempt to sustain an ethos of place-seeking and chosen accountability in a web of collaborative relationships has been a learning opportunity for all involved. We don’t pretend to have achieved anything more. TSP offers a canvas to reflect on this experience. …


Meshing futures with systems thinking

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Future scenarios help us to understand how uncertainties in the world around us may interact to give way to different futures. The basic assumption underlying the scenario methodology is the following: we can’t predict the future, but we can articulate our expectations about the range of possible futures we are facing. That is why scenarios always feature in multiples. A set of scenarios is presented as a collection of usually two, three or four distinct narrative images of the future. Together they cover the horizon of possibilities around the focal issue we are trying to understand.

Causal-loop diagrams (CLDs, also…


How formative experiences nourish systemic sensibilities

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“It is incontestable that the void which we grasp with the pincers of contradiction is from on high, for we grasp it the better the more we sharpen our natural faculties of intelligence, will and love. The void which is from below is that into which we fall when we allow our natural faculties to become atrophied.”
— Simone Weil

In this piece I continue my exploration of the notion of systemic sensibilities in an attempt to better understand how we develop into system practitioners.

I borrow this notion of systemic sensibility from Ray Ison, Professor of Systems at the…


A Systems Library, Vol. 16

Photo by Fröken Fokus from Pexels

This is the fourth book in a row by a female author that I’m adding to my Systems Library. Undeniably these feminine perspectives are adding something vital and distinctive to the systems discourse and practice.

Jocelyn Chapman digs into the personal lives of systems thinkers and practitioners and dares to put the ‘love’ word in the title of her book on cybernetics.

Judi Marshall lets a very sensitive and experimental approach to ‘living life as inquiry’ unfold against a background of elusive systemic patterns.

Cognitive scientist Hanne De Jaegher puts forward an enactive perspective on the way we develop knowledge…


Time Surfing for Creativity and Efficiency

Photo: Philippe Vandenbroeck

Of course it works. It couldn’t be otherwise. The main point of a writing retreat is to secure for oneself a significant supply of ‘deep work’ time blocks. The experience and quality of work is so much better when one is able to focus a few hours on one single task. It’s a matter of rhythm more than anything else. Work in itself is not what wears us out. It’s the multi-tasking, the mental hopping from project to project, often several times per day.

The unceasing barrage of emails is another major hindrance to achieving deep focus. The retreat demonstrated…


Systemic Sensibilities, Systems Literacy, Systems Thinking in Practice.

Moving from Systemic Sensibilities to Systems Thinking in Practice? Or from Systems Thinking to Systems Being? (picture: my own: location: Ponte Tibetano, Switzerland)

This is a corollary to an earlier Medium piece of mine. There I retraced my own developmental trajectory as a move across several horizons of systems mastery: from systems thinking to systems tinkering to systems being. With the proviso, of course, that all this talk about mastery has an aspirational character and that this personal journey is far from finished.

The point I wanted to make is that familiarity with systems thinking tools is only a beginning. With an emphasis on the indefinite article. …


A Systems Library, Vol. 15

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Note: This is a review of a short book that has been published in Dutch. However, the ideas foregrounded in the essay are accessible to English readers via a paper that is freely available. I’m heading my review by the title of the paper, rather than that of the book, as the former is more attractive and offers a more faithful reflection of the core ideas.

This is a very important book. For me anyway. Because it provides a scientific basis for beliefs and a praxis that I have long since embraced. In short, I believe that life comes down…

Philippe Vandenbroeck

Systems & futures thinker ⎹ @shiftNGroup ⎹ shiftN Academy ⎹ helping ‘change makers for the common good’ to handle complex strategic challenges #systemsthinking

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