I have been immersing myself in the varied and voluminous literature on systems transformation and think that perhaps there are three distinct ways that people look at systems and how they get transformed, and therefore the actions they see as important to effecting transformation.
In Donella's Meadows's book Thinking in Systems: A Primer, she says that "a system must consist of three kinds of things: elements, interconnections, and a function or purpose.”
The three strategies I notice being used--which I am calling ecological-technocratic, political-competitive, and relational-spiritual--focus respectively on the function of the system as a whole, the elements, and the interconnections.
The ecological-technocratic lens
This first strategy focuses on the system as a whole: its purpose, function, and characteristic pattern of results.
I call it "ecological-technocratic" because it focuses on the results produced by system as a whole and what people ought to do for the system to create better results. I think this strategy dominates policy conversations.
The dangers of not using this strategy are disconnectedness and irrelevance: that you will pursue systems transformation without paying attention to the impact of your actions on the system as a whole.
On the other hand, the dangers of only using this strategy are repression and boundarylessness: that you will pursue systems transformation through imposing on others what you think they ought to be doing, or that you will get lost in the reaches of the larger system far beyond your domain of influence.
The political-competitive lens
This second strategy focuses on individual and collective elements as wholes in themselves (i.e wholes or holons, including yourself and the organisations you are part of, that are part of the system as a whole), each of which has its own ambitions, gifts, capacities, agendas, interests, needs, energies, and passions.
I call it "political-competitive" because it focuses on what each element is trying to do to survive and grow and achieve its objectives. I think this strategy dominates political and business conversations.
The dangers of not using this strategy are impotence and sentimentality: that you'll pursue systems transformation overlooking your own and others' agency and ambitions.
On the other hand, the dangers of only using this strategy are self-centredness and abuse: that you or others will pursue systems transformation attending only to your own agency and ambitions, and thereby steamroll over others.
The relational-spiritual lens
This third strategy focuses on the the nature of the relationships, interconnections, inter-being, and entanglement among elements.
I call it "relational-spiritual" because it focuses on the extent to which the character of relationships are, to use Martin Buber's language, I-Thou (subject-subject) rather than I-It (subject-object). I think this lens dominates process conversations.
The dangers of not using this strategy are objectification and transactionalism: that you will pursue systems transformation in a way that treats some people as less than human.
On the other hand, the dangers of only using this strategy are insularity and sectarianism: that you will pursue systems transformation in a way that attends to relationships within the system over the results produced by the system as a whole.
Most people tend to employ only one or two of these strategies, treating the others as unimportant. Generative systems transformation--transformation that increases connection, agency, and fairness--requires employing all three strategies.
What do you find useful or not useful in this ways of looking at systems transformation?
What clarifications or corrections would you suggest to this articulation?
In what communities or literatures have you seen each of these strategies being used?
What communities or literatures have you seen that use all three?
Which lens do you tend to reach for first and most?