Notebooks of a systems thinker

Two decades worth of thinking, living, seeking.

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During the holiday break I did a sweep of the attic and cellar. And I rediscovered that crate with filled notebooks. The written and doodled sediment of two decades of work and life, infused with a spirit of systems thinking and practice. Leafing through thousands of pages generates mixed emotions. One senses the enormous effort that goes into a random life, this ceaseless and yet fleeting concatenation of encounters, readings, conversations, jobs, reflections, here dutifully captured in longhand.

Here I recapture the contours of this journey through a series of contrasts that speak to me from these pages.

The ephemeral and the evidence-driven

My notebooks are filled with doodles and schematics that reflect systemic preoccupations. Drafts for causal loop diagrams eddy across the pages. In addition there are plenty of visual references to key ideas and tools from the wider systems literature (such as Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety, the Meadows Ladder, Beer’s Viable Systems Model, and others). What is less obvious is how these thinking tools play out in my work. The sketches look similar but they may take on a different weight. Some are on the fly condensations of things seen, read or heard, others are drafts for more encompassing and research-driven systems maps that go through many iterations.

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A small collection of drafts for causal-loop diagrams, spanning sectors and settings (building community, combating money laundering, governing land use, managing a symphony orchestra, and others). Some capture impressions on the fly, others — bottom right — develop into much more intricate maps.

Order and chaos

Much in these notes is very neat and structured. Sometimes fastidiously so. Particularly when breaking in a new journal I tend to lavish extra care on my notes. As I’m progressing the note-taking and doodling become more visceral. The diagrams sprawl increasingly casually across the page. The handwriting becomes more angular. Much depends also on the match between the sort of pen I’m using — fineliners and ballpoints usually — and the paper I’m writing on. Some combos seem to make it easier to maintain orderliness. I tend to abandon my notebooks when disorder has moved beyond a tipping point. However, I need to remind myself that tidiness is not at all times a desirable quality of a notebook. It depends on the intended use. As a repository of information it helps when notes are readable years after they have been captured. But the contingency of the messy doodling experiment may offer germs for future ideas. So when the notebook serves as personal idea laboratory, I should not be anxious to open its pages to chaos.

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Order at the start of a notebook (L) and chaos at the end (R)

The exogenous and the endogenous

Although everything is written in my hand there is much in these journals that is not mine. Notes taken during countless hours of lectures and readings form a dormant reservoir of raw materials for further research. I am reminded of opportunities to learn directly from luminaries such as Humberto Maturana, Francisco Varela, Stafford Beer, Peter Senge, and many more. In addition there are also mementos of encounters with people from all walks of life. The pages are littered with names, phone numbers and mail addresses. Notebook inner pockets are stuffed with business cards. I can trace back important collaborative relationships to a casual jotting on the page of a notebook from years back. It draws attention to the fact that our work thrives on planned or unplanned real-world encounters. Much of this relational life-blood is leaking away from our rapidly virtualizing work environment, where there is zero opportunity for chance meetings. In that sense, these notebooks may already point to a bygone age.

The personal and the professional

In 1994 I left my job in a multinational company and wanted to stretch a canvas that would encompass my whole life. I didn’t seek to keep apart the personal and the professional. That felt only natural as systemic sensibilities are underpinning the one and only life I’m living. My ‘humble inquiry’ is a search for a collaborative context that invites learning, for honest and probing relationships, for beauty. How would one be able to compartmentalize that? In my notebooks different spheres of life flow restlessly into one another. As I grow older they become ever more intimately entangled.

By and large I have been able to stick to a rhythm of living that sustains intense engagement over long periods of time. However, the quest for a dynamic and regenerative balance between all my responsibilities and desires goes on. As I’m progressing on my life path I feel how the pieces of the mosaic are flowing together into one indissoluble whole.

The poetic and the prosaic

The bulk of my notebooks is devoted to rather prosaic issues: notes made during meetings and interviews, project schedules, workshop designs, budget calculations, to-do lists.

But there has always been a place for poetry: sketches of landscapes and paintings seen, verses transcribed, musings. And as I’m progressing, the poetic shines ever more manifestly through.

Past and future

Leafing through these pages I wonder how individuals grow. Questions and ideas seem to return again and again. Visual patterns and keywords form insistent and easily decodable motto themes through the years. I also recognize a constancy in the intellectual stance from which they are tackled. Still, at closer inspection I am amazed by the providential character of some of the sparks that flare up from these pages. There is an almost subterranean, hidden melody that suggests itself in scattered references to complexity science, romantic ‘Naturphilosophie’ and Confucian humanism. It’s the philosopher’s stone, the question to which I want to devote myself more pointedly in the coming two decades: how does a relational autopoiesis, rooted in respect for all life-forms, can be embraced by humankind as the ‘élan vital’ that drives the evolution of our planetary habitat.

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From L to R: Decoding Mongolian wisdom (2001), musing on happiness while traveling through winterly Hokkaido (2015), a conversation on humility and growth (2021).

Do we really make progress? Or are we merely rehearsing the same play? Maybe we do. But let’s hope we become more supple in our movements across the stage, more discerning in savoring the space between the words that make up our lines, more empathetic in listening to those sharing the stage with us. The journey goes on.

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

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