Why we’re wired for systems thinking

Monkey's big brains let them understand complex social systems.

During a recent lecture at the Presidio MBA program my professor gave us a taste of systems thinking. In a PowerPoint slide with text to small to read he showed us a nest of boxes and arrows, stocks and flows describing just a few of the millions of complicated relationships between a company, it’s environment and the society in which it operates. Systems thinking, he explained, is about taking all of these complex interconnections into account, a daunting task for an oversimplified system that is too dense to read let alone memorize or understand the implications of.

It’s my personal belief that at it’s core systems thinking is a lot simpler, even instinctual. This view of systems thinking comes from the Ngorongoro crater in northern Tanzania, where I stood just a week before viewing my professor’s PowerPoint slide. Covered in grass, zebras and thick brambles, Ngorongoro is the stomping grounds of human evolution, where we acquired the big brains that have let us build such miraculous (and destructive) systems across the globe. Staring down hippos and herds of wildebeest, I reflected on what we evolved those big brains for.

The famous research of a man named Robert Dunbar indicates that our big frontol lobes are designed by nature to deal with a very specific type of complex system. Dunba found that brain siz in animals correlates directly to the size of complexe groups. If you’re in a zebra herd or an ant colony you don’t need to think that hard-just react instinctually to the other animals around you. But if you’re in a wold pack or a monkey troupe things are different. You have to pay attention to ever-shifting hierarchies and alliances in the group, there are dynamic relationships to navigate and politics to understand, and that understanding takes grey matter. The advantages are obvious- the group can respond dynamically to its environment, strategically seizing on opportunities and fending off threats.

We have big brains so that we can think about relationships and communities, and we are incredibly, incredibly good at it. For an illustration of exactly how good, ask a 14 year old girl to explain the complex system of friendships and romantic relationships in her social group. You’ll get an answer whose complexity puts six-figure stock analysts to shame.

This implies that there could be a much more intuitive way to approach systems thinking than my professor’s daunting slide: approach a complicated system like you would get to know a community. Focus on building relationships, human and otherwise, and let those relationships evolve until we understand how they interconnect. For many of us this process is intuitive. How many of us have computers that “like” to behave a certain way or that “don’t get along” with their printers? Human relationships are potent metaphors for how complex systems work because they’re what we’ve evolved to understand.

What does it mean to approach complex systems like communities? I’ll throw a few principles out there for discussion:

1) Relationships can always get deeper. You never fully understand your best friend or the soil that grows your crops.

2) You can understand someone by understanding their other relationships. You get to know someone new by asking about their family, their job, their passions, and all of the other things that bind them to the world. You get to know soil the same way.

3) Don’t take relationships for granted. The more that you rely on someone or something, the more you can benefit from a deep understanding of them or it.

4) Prioritize the relationships that put you in balance. In an infinitely complicated world, focus on building an understanding the relationships that let you survive and thrive.

5) Look for integration. Strong communities are built on things that benefit lots of relationships at once. If you know how to look for them such opportunities usually abound.  Be wary of a good thing that benefits one relationship at the expense of others.

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