“That’s another way we can ensure that traditional skills are passed on!”
“If we modify the program we can include that whole group of kids we were forgetting!”
“Should I invite the funders to come to the village from the start? Even if it’s not perfect they could see where they could help.”
Exclamations like these are the reason I always come back to teaching systems thinking. There’s just no sweeter pleasure than watching someone’s moment of breakthrough insight, especially when the breakthrough holds within it the potential of bigger, faster or better results “at the intersection of peace, justice, and ecology.” That intersection is where the Dalia Lama Fellows work, learn, dream, and experiment, and their playground became my own for a day when I had a chance to introduce the newest class of fellows to the basics of systems thinking.
We gathered together at a retreat center in the hills of Northern California far from their homes in Africa, North America and Asia—and far from my own in Vermont—for a six-hour introduction to vision, stocks, flows and feedback loops as a taste of a body of knowledge they could pursue at home through books, articles and classes like the Climate Leader.
With each fellow immersed in the design of the service project that will be a key part of their fellowship year, I was hopeful that systems thinking would help them see new possibilities and avoid potential pitfalls as they roll out their projects.
Teachers always learn as much as students in settings like this, of course, and a few lessons seem particularly worth sharing as we at CI are investing more energy than ever in making systems thinking training available to a global audience via the Climate Leader.
- Systems thinking, even a little taste of it, helps change-makers make sense of their own experience. Over the years, I’ve taught systems thinking in a two-year long immersion program, in a 20-minute “introductory remark” and in every imaginable configuration in between. More time is always better, but even a few hours is worthwhile, I’ve decided. Leaders who, like Dalai Lama Fellows, work under challenging conditions in fields like health care, poverty alleviation and environmental restoration, tend to have their own firsthand experiences where a strategy in the real world played out quite differently than planned on paper. Systems thinking gives words and explanations to such experiences of complexity and unpredictability, and it was so satisfying to watch how, with shared anecdotes and knowing laughter, the fellows began to see their own experiences with change-making not as failures or missteps but as part of the process of intervening in systems.
- Even a few systems stories can help people to imagine new possibilities. It was exciting to watch the ways in which a few simple systems stories inspired the fellows to see possible new elements in their own work. The potential for reinforcing feedback to help a pilot grow to scale via word of mouth made sense both in rural Tanzania HIV awareness and in reinvigorating traditional music in India. And the potential to have graduates of a program become part of the capacity for expanding it resonated from a literacy program in Africa to peace skills training at a U.S. university. Even across differences of geography, culture and context, a few core systems structures seem to have almost universal relevance for change-makers.
- The value of systems thinking lies in the conversation and the questions, not the detail of the diagrams. Deep mastery drawing causal loop diagrams or stock and flow diagrams takes much longer than a day to acquire. But the Dalai Lama Fellows dove in with enthusiasm to this strange new visual language, and in the process asked themselves and each other questions that helped them see new opportunities. The deepest value of the day we spent together wasn’t the conventions of diagrams, but the challenge of articulating a strategy and thinking about how it would ripple out in the world.
- Inspiration, boldness, and vision are global resources. In this era of looming challenges from climate change to poverty, it was inspiring to spend a day with young people who, while completing their own education, are implementing so many novel experiments around the world. Our global media may be full of stories of conflict, scarcity and intractable problems, but the Dalai Lama Fellows are evidence of the vast resources of creativity and dedication that also exist in our world. If you are looking to fuel your own sense of inspiration about what individuals and small groups can accomplish with modest financial resources but deep stocks of compassion and innovation, take a few minutes to explore the work of the Dalai Lama Fellows.