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Worldviews and why they matter

by Chris Ingold, member of the Loops of Learning community

Worldviews are important because however systems thinking, and systemic actions are pursued, there is no such thing as an objective model. 

Appreciating and acknowledging the differing worldviews and lenses on reality can be a powerful tool to mitigate subjectivity, and arguably exploit it to seek fresh perspectives and opportunities for change. 

From a practical perspective, acknowledging worldview allows us to simplify individual models and make our insights more digestible. 

From a human perspective it can allow us to be more appreciative and empathetic. 

From both perspectives, appreciating worldview allows us to become better change agents, and be more impactful as a result.

Worldviews provide different perspectives to model the same system and all views bring valuable insights.

Organisational actors less invested in systems thinking theory will bring more grounded and often divergent worldviews to the table. For example “efficiency improvement requires job security for those involved” or alternatively “efficiency can be measured by workforce reduction.”

For example, when James Womack and Dan Jones rebranded the Toyota Production System for a western audience (as Lean), they took an approach steeped in the first of the above worldviews and remade it for a culture steeped in the latter. They didn’t attempt to change their audience’s worldview. How might our workplaces be different if they had?

Other worldviews you may have observed include: “compliance always takes precedence” or “the customer always takes precedence”; “protecting my team or boss comes first”; “most projects fail, so protect the status quo”; “if it matters it can be measured”; “it is good to automate as much as possible” and so on.

If you’re working with organisational actors using a systems approach, you may want to start with trying to capture all worldviews together, and show the interactions between them. Perhaps this gets drawn up as a massive image or ‘rich picture’ (using the Soft Systems Methodology perspective) and from that you can then pick out subsystems and start working on those individually. If all the actors are using a similar metaphorical language, such as talking about their organisation as though it were an organic system, culture or machine, but not all of the above jumbled up, it’s possible to capture the worldviews. 

There may also be valuable insights to be gained through applying a worldview that is absent from the room. 

Diverging worldviews are harder to model together. The more worldviews diverge in a group, the greater the importance of psychological safety for those participating, and the greater the likelihood that this divergence holds the key to addressing the problem being investigated.

The challenge for systems thinkers, especially if they’re searching for useful things to change, is whether and how to break up the big picture and identify specific interventions. Taking a smaller system and looking at it from different worldviews, restating the purpose of that system if the worldview requires it, can be a good way to do that. 

Look at each view and you may find a straightforward, predictable, intervention and one that is already tried and failed. Look at both and identify where they collide and that may help identify the core of the ‘sticky’ problem, and possibly new ideas and approaches. 

This is not unlike the ‘6 Hats Thinking’ popularised by Edward de Bono, though it is significantly more focussed and involved. Like that approach however it allows the system thinker, and others new to systems thinking, to step away from the complexity of an all-encompassing model to a series of complementary and far more digestible models which are easier for our brains to absorb and process. 

Appreciating and understanding the impact of worldview is (from the author’s worldview) one of the key skills any systems thinker needs. It is also one that can divide approaches. Choose yours, but leave yourself open to others. 

Further reading

Gareth Morgan - Images of Organisation (1986)

Karl Weick - Sensemaking in Organisations (1995)

Peter Senge - The Fifth Discipline (1990)

Tyson Yunkaporta - SandTalk (2019)

Peter Checkland - Soft Systems Methodology in Action (1990)

Stafford Beer - Brain of the Firm (1972)

James Womack and Dan Jones - Lean Thinking (1996)

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