Talking About Systems: looking for systems in the news (and not)
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Archive for September, 2009

Hungry from Hungary

It’s 4 am.  Except for the gentle rainfall outside and the creaking bones of  this old house, all is quiet.  

I returned from Hungary last night and I can’t sleep. 

refreshed-sourdough-starter3 I spent the most extraordinary week with the Balaton Group and my mind is like a sour dough starter that has just been fed:  bubbling, expanding and overflowing.  

During the week, I was immersed in a host of new sustainability ideas in social science, politics, education, and economics.  There was  Tim Jackson’s proposal for a new type of economics that brings “prosperity without growth, a community biogas project in Indonesia run by Any Sulistyowati that uses a biodigester to turn cow manure into biogas (energy for cooking and organic fertilizer), thus transforming the energy equation for rural people in Indonesia, and Emelia Arthur, the young, vibrant newly elected “mayor” or  District Chief Executive of the Shama District,  who by demanding bribe-free, sustainable development, is creating ripple effects far beyond her region in Ghana.  

There is of course, much more to tell about this meeting, but it is a story about my flight home that I most want to share with you.  

I flew home on Lufthansa via Munich.  As I settled in for the seven-hour second leg, the person in front of me did what most people eventually do:  she pushed her seat back.  I, in turn, reclined my seat so to have more space to work on my laptop.  This simple act sent the person behind me into a tizzy!

She began bumping and pushing and pulling on my seat.  I was on such a high from the meeting in Hungary that somehow I convinced myself that she was just getting herself “settled in.”  After an hour or so, the bumping and thumping continued. It was clear she wanted my seat out of her “space”, ASAP!  

It did cross my mind to just “give in” and put my seat back fully upright,  but honestly, I was so cramped by the seat in front of me,  it just wasn’t a reasonable option.  As the tension in my own body began to rise, I thought to myself, there has to be some lesson here!  

And then it dawned on me:  when we are living in systems, it is often challenging to see more than your part of the system.  So, we make decisions and take actions that make sense for our part, not necessarily understanding or inquiring into the impact on the other parts, or on the whole.  

It did occur to me to turn around and try to talk this through with my fellow passenger but I lost courage.  Why?   She seemed to be speaking only in German and I was sure my two years of college German wouldn’t carry me through the conversation.  

I also knew  it would be a difficult conversation.  Perhaps I should talk to my friend Sheila Heen, co-author of the book, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, about partnering on a new book:  How  to have the difficult conversations that emerge when we attempt to reconnect the parts to the whole.

The bumping, thumping passenger behind me had actually given me a gift:  an insight about why it can be so difficult to think about systems. As soon as that insight showed up, I relaxed.  Eventually, I put my seat half way up.  

And the thumping stopped.