Peter Senge’s seminal work, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of The Learning Organization (1990) has been described as visionary and ahead of its time. We will revisit Senge’s foundational discipline – Systems Thinking – in the light of practical neuroscience.
Systems thinking, through my practical application lens, can be viewed as an integrated, “whole brain” approach to describe, analyze and solve business problems; build and leverage organizational core competencies; conduct strategic planning sessions and implement scenario simulations. The core methodology can be applied to practically any personal or professional circumstance.
This practical neuroscience process works well for a full day session with three or more people.
The Group: Stakeholders and subject matter experts form “the group;” they are open-minded, flexible and committed to learning from one another. A skilled, non-participating facilitator is recommended. The facilitator and group should know each other’s subject matter expertise and their sensory and cognitive strengths; this knowledge establishes mutual respect, facilitates efficient exchange of information and leverages the brain diversity of the group. These often-ignored factors can make a big difference in increasing harmony and collaboration, accelerating the process and achieving results beyond the most optimistic prediction.
The Environment: The physical environment helps establish a positive state-of-mind, comfort and safety. A large and attractive room, with temperature and light control and both informal and formal seating/working areas, is recommended. Beverages and refreshments are available at all times. The space is quiet and free from outside interruptions. White boards, flip charts, artist pads, colored pens and markers are available. Table toys or props are available to help kinesthetic learners process information and express themselves. Internet connectivity, computers, LCD projector and screen are set up for immediate use. The room includes a sound system and CD’s for breaks and background music. Classical music is particularly effective for helping participants conduct high level cognitive thinking. These environmental factors are important for all meetings, not just systems thinking sessions.
Mind Mapping: Mind mapping activates and makes use of the visual cortex, a large and underutilized part of the brain. It may be the most effective learning and communication system available for meetings and work sessions. Mind mapping is faster, more fun and covers more bases than traditional outlining methods. Using the services of a skilled mind-mapper is highly recommended.
The Process: The actual process of systems thinking is easier than you may think when the above pre-planning steps are in place. The facilitator and mind-mapper explain the process to the group and answer questions. The group understands that all contributions are viewed as equally valuable and valued. What seems strange, goofy or out-of-place may very well be the tipping point for breakthrough insights.
Start with the Global Picture, addressing the context or big “chunks” that form and frame the systemic picture of the given situation. As an example, if the subject is “competitive positioning,” ideas that come to mind may be key words and concepts like strengths, weaknesses, reputation, customer perception, competencies, gaps, risks, obstacles, success and so forth. These key ideas and concepts spawn additional ideas that expand existing key concepts or establish a new component part of the “big picture.” These component parts are the content of the context. Eventually, a well developed mind map not only describes a situation, but also reveals pathways to the desired outcomes. This initial process occurs in an informal and casual setting with dim light and comfortable temperatures; this environment stimulates and supports creative thinking. Participants may close their eyes to think deeply, sit, stand, move about, doodle, draw or take notes on their sketchpads. Research-based background music to play before and/or during these brainstorming segments includes Tchaikovsky, P. (The Nutcracker Suite), Debussy (La mer or Prelude a l’apres midi d’un Faun) and Ravel (Daphne et Chloe).
The process continues until the active flow of ideas ceases. The facilitator and mind-mapper work as a team to stimulate and document the group’s thinking. There may be multiple breaks to rest and reenergize between sessions. The resulting mind map will look like a giant tree with multiple trunks, branches and leaves, constituting the group’s systems thinking output.
Examine how the parts may be connected and relate to one another. This is the sequential and logical process of systems thinking when the group looks for themes, patterns, pathways and relationships. Align and connect parts of the “tree,” using arrows, symbols and additional key words that add meaning and clarity. Number or sequence the elements that constitute action steps.
This sequential part of systems thinking is conducted in a formal setting with straight-back chairs, tables, bright lights and cooler temperature; these environmental conditions help keep the group focused, alert and on-task. The group may request that the mind-mapper redraw the initial mind map for communication purposes or further work.
In conclusion, the success of a systems thinking session is dependent on the diversity and mind-set of the participants, the physical environment and the use of mind mapping as a primary communication and learning tool. Diverse, knowledgeable and open-minded women and men can trust their collective brainpower to describe, analyze and solve any problem using these practical neuroscience methods.
- Practical Neuroscience Approach to Personal Mastery (brainpathways.net)
- Mining Your Global Brain for Creative Solutions (brainpathways.net)
- Using Practical Neuroscience for Fast, Easy Learning (brainpathways.net)
- Four Steps to Dream Team Performance (brainpathways.net)