Exploring the Roots of a Systems Practice

How formative experiences nourish systemic sensibilities

Philippe Vandenbroeck
10 min readMar 16, 2021

“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 UK’s Open University. What is he alluding to?

In a recent book, co-authored with Ed Straw, Ison defines a sensibility as “a quality of being able to appreciate and respond to complex emotional or aesthetic influences.” Given that “systems thinking is thinking in relationships”, an awareness of particularly relational dynamics is therefore a key aspect of a systemic sensibility.

A systemic sensibility also seems to be bound up with a childlike, and in its adult manifestation somewhat subversive, curiosity and sense of wonder. “Asking ‘why’ is the essence of systemic sensibility.” ‘Why people’ are prone to thinking systemically even if they are not aware of it.

We get the drift: systemic sensibilities reflect a psychological and perceptual orientation to apprehending relational patterns and root causes.

Why should we fuss over systemic sensibilities?

Our ability to respond to societal challenges, according to Ison and Straw, hinges on our ability to scale up and institutionalise our capacity to think systemically in practice. Sensibilities and literacy function as enablers for this capacity.

Therefore, rekindling our innate or acculturated systemic sensibilities offers a fertile ground for developing systems literacy, which enables our capacity for systems thinking in practice, which we’re seeking to embody in new practices and institutions for systemic governance.

In an earlier Medium piece I argued that this linear development path might be fruitfully reconceptualised as a circular learning process that reinforces these sensibilities and capabilities on an ongoing basis.

Here I want to dig a bit deeper into my personal history in an attempt to find out what formative experiences and settings kindled or reinforced my systemic sensibilities up to a point where they started to form the basis for a particular form of systems literacy, which then in turn became the dominant frame for my (professional) identity as ‘systems thinker in practice’.

Arguably all this is a bit hypothetical, more felt than solidly grasped. I’m approaching this question in the spirit of first-person inquiry, taking my cue from Ison and Straw, but being open to other hunches and patterns that may emerge from the data, being my memories of formative experiences in the first half of my life trajectory. Let’s see where this leads us.

The safety and freedom of the womb

Reflecting on my youth an image that comes forward is that of the womb. I grew up as an only son of worker parents in a rural environment, part of a small but tightly-knit extended family. That social setting offered a womb-like experience of sorts. Which was reinforced by the spatial surroundings in which I found myself. My world as a kid revolved around the cul-de-sac where my grandmother lived. The street was barely 150m long and deadlocked against a railway. It felt like a separate, sheltered world. Luckily for me this compact haven bristled with children of a similar age. There were days of excruciating boredom when I kept kicking a ball against a blind wall and nobody would come out to join me. But sometimes magic would happen and we would be swept up in the flow of unplanned, celebratory play. My youth unfolded in a nested series of these safe spaces, stretching out from the privacy of my own room, the garden and fields behind the house, to my grandmother’s street and the village beyond. These locales gave me the opportunity to roam, to feel the pulse of the place, and to improvise, solitarily or collaboratively, without parental supervision and of course without the distractions of the internet age. My bicycle was my main exploration probe. I have always wanted to recreate these kinds of wombs — paradoxical settings of safety and exposure, of freedom and constraint — to play, learn, and work.

The beauty of self-facilitation

There’s a rebellious streak in me that resists hierarchy and what I perceive to be unjust and unmotivated imbalances of power. The freedoms of my youth were counterbalanced by a rather rigid upbringing. My father wanted the best for his son and was exacting (though certainly not unreasonable) in his standards qua behaviour and performance inside and outside of the school. However, he had the judgment to relax his demands when he felt I started to resent his parenting approach. In my teens I also started to question my grandmother’s pernicious role in family politics, which I understood to cause lots of conflict and pain. It would lead to a total and final break between us. These experiences alerted me to the potential cost of power differentials and triggered an impulse to make conscious choices about relationship making, maintaining and breaking.

An epiphany during my military service awakened me to nourishing ways of engaging in relationships in a purpose-driven environment. My job as a junior officer was to train a platoon of recruits to survey field artillery positions (these were pre-GPS days). We had to work very accurately and very fast. Errors in our calculations might have resulted in unwanted deviations in the trajectory of live shells. We were confronted with a learning environment characterised by high stakes and very quick feedback on the quality of our work. Training this unit to a well-oiled team required me to shift from a control-oriented to a trust-based leadership role. At the time I felt that to be quite a leap. But it was beautiful and gratifying to witness how my team members found their functional niche and directed themselves to contribute to collaborative excellence. It alerted me to the beauty of place-seeking environments where people step up propelled by an inner ‘yes’.

My initial work experiences — in an academic environment and in a multinational corporation — offered interesting learning opportunties but ultimately ran aground in conflict and disappointment. I had no truck with what I experienced as unhelpful organisational politics. Shortly before my thirtieth anniversary I left the world of big organisations to set up shop with a colleague. From the very start our collaboration was guided by an ethos of relative autonomy and self-facilitation in pursuit of a shared vision, reflected by our motto ‘united, but untied’. This has continued to be the spirit behind shiftN up to the present day. Life in shiftN has been an intense and gratifying learning experience. It is an environment for day-to-day systems practice, always in movement, and constantly throwing up new existential questions for reflection, debate and self-assessment. This warrants a deeper discussion which I’m planning to pursue elsewhere.

The call of character

My upbringing set me on a path that would inevitably estrange me from my own roots in a worker’s family. I was the very first to obtain an academic degree. The old suspicion from workers vis-à-vis intellectuals made itself felt also in our relationships. In addition, the conflict with my domineering grandmother and the wayward choices in shaping my professional path — moving decisively away from the safety of well-earning jobs in big organisations — set me increasingly apart. Being a foreign body, a ‘Fremdkörper’, in my own family felt lonely and unjust at times. But I took it in my stride as I was very conscious of the potential cost of ignoring ‘the call of one’s character’ (Mari Ruti) in return for shallow stability and consent in social relationships.

The pull of potential

I feel that potential is bleeding into every second of our lives. The world out there ís potential. The future ís fundamentally abundant. This is probably the ur-experience that nourishes my systemic sensibilities. I have trawled my memories but I can’t recall how or when I became cognisant of this apprehension. Maybe I need to revisit the psychogeography of my youth to discover its root. Because at the confines of the nested wombs I was so familiar with, loomed an unknown that seemed to hold both promise and risks. Or perhaps it was my overpowering acquaintance, aged 12, with the vastness of the alpine world that kindled the apprehension of potential. From the get-go the mountains were for me a hallowed space. They offered a raw, pre-cognitive sense of immense space. And the volatility of their cloud- and waterscapes imbued me with a vitalist conception of life on earth.

Potential is not unequivocally benign. It is simply unknown. It holds promise and risks of unknown nature, quantity and correlation. That position of not-knowing invites us to a volatile embrace of attraction and precariousness. Fear, however, is the killer of potential. “Fear is the original sin.” (Hoebeke). Which is why I continue to be uncompromising in my refusal to submit to environments that oppress us with discourses of scarcity and terror.

So how do these experiences feed into something we might label ‘systemic sensibilities’?

In order to respond to this question I feel I need to go beyond the hints offered by Ison and Straw. Certainly, some of these experiences point to my recalcitrant, ‘why-asking’ disposition. And, yes, there is an important ‘relational’ component in these stories. But a deeper significance appears against the background of an intriguing systemic pattern, namely the idea — proffered by my friend and mentor Luc Hoebeke - that our lives unfold within the force field of two foundational paradoxes.

Let’s turn to Gregory Bateson to introduce the first paradox. In his book Mind and Nature Bateson characterises the whole field of organisation of life as being split into two realms. One is associated with the womb; it is the domain of replication, known as embryology, or epigenesis. In contrast there is the whole realm of exposure, of learning and evolution, in which the ongoing processes of change are triggered by randomness.

“The essence of epigenesis is predictable repetition; the essence of learning and evolution is exploration and change.”

And Bateson goes on: “In the transmission of human culture, people always attempt to replicate, to pass on to the next generation the skills and values of the parents; but the attempt always and inevitably fails because cultural learning is geared to learning, not to DNA.”. This reflects a poignant vision on life: random workings of probability will always eat up pattern and order. “The messages and guidelines for order exist only, as it were, in sand or are written on the surface of waters. Almost any disturbance, even mere Brownian movement, will destroy them. Information can be forgotten or blurred. The code book can be lost.” The random destroys, but it is also vital to the creation of new order. It is out of the random that organisms collects new mutations and that stochastic learning gathers its solutions. Luc Hoebeke refers to this as the life and death paradox: “The paradox of life is that it is always in danger of dying.”

He complements this with a second foundational paradox that we humans have to face up to in our lives: the paradox of I and Thou. My identity is socially co-determined by others. The word ‘I’ is initially a gift from my parents. Others help me to discover myself. At the same time I am afraid of them, because they signify also a threat to who I am. They can shatter my emerging identity and suppress the call of my character.

It seems to me that the formative experiences described above revolve around these two foundational paradoxes. They pushed me to become attuned to the reach and resonance of these paradoxes.

Indeed, I clearly feel that my path is a manifestation of a forward thrust, an internal drive, ‘a will to development’. This movement seems to be suspended between polarities: the snugness and darkness of the womb versus the radiance and precariousness associated to the world’s unknowable potential. I believe this existential chiaroscuro signals the experience of the life and death paradox. I have tried to negotiate that paradox by creating spaces, for myself and for and with others, that offer a vitalising balance between order and predictability on the one hand and uncertainty and option density on the other hand. In doing so my temperament has pushed me away from the cookie-cutter solutions offered by traditional organisations. I want to authentically live that dynamic balance, in suspension between protection by order and exposure to randomness, with like-minded people.

This entails an intense engagement with the I-Thou paradox. I’ve spoken about how tricky it is to live through the question of belonging and autonomy within the scope of my parental family, charged as it is with atavistic patterns of kinship and class. The team I am part of, shiftN, offers a more open and gentle environment to do so. As does the nuclear family I co-founded with my life partner thirty years ago. These are settings where we try to enact an ethos of ‘letting be’ by attending to stable but not rigid patterns of loving relationships. Cognitive scientist Hanne De Jaegher writes about it as follows: “Loving is a never-ending balancing act between the ongoing being and becoming of lover and loved. It is in these relationships, I think, that we can begin to find a way to understand our most sophisticated human knowing.”

In a spirit of first-person inquiry I traced a pattern through early formative experiences in attempt to learn more about the root of my systemic sensibilities. I hypothesise that these sensibilities, and by extrapolation my whole systemic practice, are rooted in experiences that revolve around two systemic paradoxes: the irreducible tension between life and death, and between I and Thou. My systems practice is a manifestation of the ongoing quest for a position between the horns of these dilemmas that is nourishing for myself and respectful of others.

A grand mystery remains and that is the experience of beauty. It is the big sun that is warming my universe and exerting a constant gravitational pull. How systems practice is necessarily bound up and suffused with beauty is a question that I may take up in future writings.



Philippe Vandenbroeck

Facilitator @ shiftN ⎹ Post-disciplinary researcher @ Newrope, ETH Zürich ⎹ How to create spaces were life is able to unfold, and is experienced as life?