Understanding Thought as a System

In Insight, Leadership, Nature, Thinking, Understanding

A friend shared today on Facebook a story and short film about how releasing just 14 wolves in to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 restored and diversified an entire landscape and ecosystem. It’s a really great story of how making a very small change in the right place to what seems a very complex ecosystem can have far reaching positive consequences.

What they did made complete sense to me as I used to work in a similar field, being the first practising Landscape Ecologist in the UK.  I say practising because the other 300 or so were scientists or researchers and I was the first guy back in the 1990’s pioneering this stuff!

I also had the advantage of before moving in to ecology I’d been in systems planning of how people and society worked.  I remember one occasion whilst working on restoring a reservoir that was being constructed in a very sensitive upland environment the lead project engineer came up to me and asked what guarantees I could offer that the restoration would work? I replied “none, but I’ve done my homework and I’m pretty sure it will.”  Six months later, it looked like the reservoir had always been a natural part of the landscape.  And the engineer told me the budget came in 40% than they would have spent doing it their normal way!

My point is this: if you are working with a system you need to a) understand the system, and b) work with how it works.  And the feedback of your level of understanding is this: is the problem staying the same, getting better, or getting worse?

So, consider this:

  • If you work in Public Health Policy, such as obesity or mental illness, and the problem is growing, then that’s a systems under-standing problem
  • If you work in Employee Engagement and wondering why anything up to 87% of employees are disengaged, then that’s a systems under-standing problem
  • If you work in education, wonder why educational standards haven’t improved, then it’s a systems under-standing problem
  • If you work in the field of Leadership and wondering why leaders aren’t improving, then it’s a systems under-standing problem

And I’m talking not about the systems people operate in, but an understanding of the system of where they operate from: the System of Thought.

And you might say it’s way more complicated than that? So my question is this: does your strategy of pursuing it’s more complicated than that” make your problem go away, stay the same or get worse?

Any complex system always runs on simple operating principles – that’s very basic systems theory. The more complex the system the more simple the underlying principles that operate it.  Human Beings surprisingly are no different!  You might be interested in science behind it that has been around for decades, but if you are trying to solve your human behaviour problems – like the ones above – based on the assumption that all human being’s thinking is determined by their circumstances, background or by other people (which is a big myth-understanding), then the acid test is this: is your problem staying the same, getting better, or getting worse?  Or put another way: is trying to solve the problem consuming ever increasing amounts of your time, energy and analysis, with no end in sight?

The moment you start to get a glimpse of everyone operating from the same system of thought then you’ll start seeing your problem very, very differently.  And it could be the metaphorical equivalent of releasing 14 wolves that over 20 years changes the entire landscape you operate in.

Understanding that – even a tiny glimpse of it – is a game changer.

If you’d like to know more, or have any comments or questions email me at anthony@headstuff.eu


  1. Most interesting Anthony I have a grounding in.the 3ps and of.late my business has taken a real hit so much so as to potentially destabilise my whole way of life. A week end of sleepless nights and anxiety even though I realise that these are my thoughts creating these feelings do not alter the facts of the realities that are playing out.
    Regardless of what meaning I attach to the circumstances. I think an understanding is a very helpful realisation and may well help to soften the blow . But external circumstantial realities whatever they may be are going to have an.impact at some point.

    • Tony, “external circumstantial realities whatever they may be are going to have an.impact at some point.”

      Impact on what? On other circumstances? That is natural: cause and effect. The question is how much impact it has on your mental peace. And even if it does, are you thrown off by it. Or see them as thoughts and are therefore able to simply let them brush over you, cause pain… and pass. Without getting caught up and elongating the pain. If you did that, imagine what impact your subsequent actions would have on the circumstantial reality!

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