Systems Decoded: Unravelling The Surprising Forces That Bind Us


Systems: A beginner’s guide to life’s invisible networks

Hey there fellow earthling! Today, we’re off on an enlightening journey to unravel the mystery of systems—a concept as pervasive in our lives as the air we breathe, and often just as unnoticed. In this post we’ll uncover how these invisible threads intricately weave the tapestry of our existence and interconnected world.

I’ll lay the groundwork for how systems work in this post. In future posts, I’ll explain how you can navigate systems to work for thinking, relating to others, solving problems and achieving the best outcomes possible. Sound good? Ok, let’s proceed.

Imagine a spider’s web

Not the one in the corner of your room (although, maybe give that a clean, eh?), but a beautifully spun, intricate web. The tiniest of bugs lands on it and—boing!—the whole thing vibrates.

That spider’s web is a system—a collection of threads so intimately linked that a change in one thread ripples through the whole. 

From the delicate dance of ecosystems to the complex dynamics of human relationships, systems are everywhere.

A system is ‘a set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or inter connecting network; a complex whole. The whole is a lot more than the sum of the parts.’

Now, let’s talk shop

In the dazzling world of Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), we’re absolutely bonkers about systems thinking. We have this nifty assumption that says, “The processes inside a person and between a person and their environment are interlinked.” 

It’s kind of like a cosmic Hokey-Cokey where everyone’s connected. (uh oh, I just found out that in the US it’s called the Hokey-Pokey! Noooo—so wrong!!! Hokey-Pokey a favourite ice cream flavour in New Zealand!)

Anyway, let me explain

Think of your mind and body as your personal ecosystem. 

When you’re under the weather, your brain turns as foggy as a British winter’s day.  And even if you’re feeling well, those negative thoughts can weigh you down as much as if you were lugging around a sackful of rotten spuds. 

It’s a two-way system

Your thoughts influence your body, and your body influences your thoughts. 

Long term, using crappy self-talk will affect your confidence and self-esteem, leading to depression and physical symptoms. Filling your head with horror movie scenarios is about as helpful as teaching a fish to climb a tree—it won’t work! So just stop it! OK? 

Let’s zoom out a little from the personal

Here are some other networks you might stumble upon: 

  • Families 
  • Hospitals 
  • Schools
  • Businesses 
  • Communities
  • Countries
  • And so on

Every decision, every action you take is like dropping a stone in a pond—splash! The ripples can reach far and wide—even if you don’t see them, touching elements of those other systems of which you’re a part.

For instance, your ill health doesn’t just affect you

Your sickness also affects all those around you. Adjustments have to be made; maybe someone has to stay home to take care of you. Someone else has to prepare dinner, take the kids to school, walk the dog, etc.

Sick man at home

If a colleague is missing from your work team, what impact does it have? Others have to pick up the slack, step into temporary roles they’re not used to, work longer hours. You can extrapolate out from an individual and notice how one person’s action, or inaction can affect so many other systems.

Nature’s network: A tale of trees and bees

The environment is a system and half! 

Think about a forest—it’s not just trees standing around talking to each other; it’s a whole party of plants, animals, and invisible critters, all linked in a dance more complicated than most of us can contemplate.

Environmentally a forest, a lake, the ocean are all part of various eco-systems.

We are inextricably linked to our environments and vice versa. We depend on our environments for food, water, shelter, warmth etc. If any of these necessities are removed or harmed, it has an impact on us in the short and/or long term. Likewise, we have an impact on our environment.

Systems are organic

The trouble with systems is that each part of a system is interconnected with other parts of the system.

This means it’s virtually impossible to make a change to one part of a system without that change having an impact on other parts of the same system. Contrary to our often linear, mechanical way of viewing the world, in a system there is no simple, straightforward cause and effect. 

Ecosystems are notoriously complex and adaptive and even the tiniest change can have disastrous consequences in another part of the same system, either immediately or over time.  

Let’s make things even more complex!

It’s often impossible to tell where one system finishes and another begins.

An AI generated image depicting the systems relationship between communities and nature

A large ecosystem consists of thousands of species and their corresponding ecological niches and habitats, many of them interacting with each other. Composed of many different plants, animals, and various micro-organisms like bacteria, they’re all linked by a very complex network.

Things occur in these systems that are frequently beyond our understanding. Often, even in retrospect we can’t make sense of them.

The presumably well thought through introduction of some species has had a devastating effect on the New Zealand eco system; rats, ferrets, rabbits, possums, mynahs, hedgehogs, deer etc. The establishment of these creatures, thought to be ‘good’ for New Zealand has created an environmental disaster. 

Why? Because they impacted our native species

Some are, or became predators. Others feed on the same vegetation as our native species, forcing them to compete or die out. Many of our birds are flightless or poor fliers. In previous times, they had no need to fly, because they had no predators. But now they’re prey for ferrets and other introduced predators. Plants that were under control in other countries became weeds in the NZ climate, running rampant and choking native species.

This inspiring 4-minute video about Yellowstone National Park perfectly illustrates the delicate balance between various aspects of an ecosystem. It clearly demonstrates the impact that losing one species has, and how nature can rebalance, recuperate and improve, once humans stop interfering.

The Plot Thickens: Enter Emergent Properties

Here’s where things become even more spellbinding. 

Emergent properties are characteristics or behaviours that arise from the complex interactions within a system. They’re often unpredictable and awe-inspiring.

How to create an emergent property

Start with a little swirl in the ocean. Now combine it with warm tropical seas and evaporating seawater.  Make sure it’s 300 miles or more from the equator so it’s sufficiently stirred by the Earth’s rotation.

What do you get?

The emergent happening known as a hurricane.

It turns into a blockbuster event with wind speeds faster than a speeding bullet (well, almost) and with an ability to suddenly alter course.

An avalanche, a wave front, and a tsunami are all examples of emergent properties. In other words, random and terrifying forces of nature.

More emergent properties

  • Traffic patterns (think how a single accident can turn a routine commute into a gridlocked nightmare, affecting countless individuals and secondary systems like schools, businesses, and emergency (emergent-cy? services.)
  • Cities 
  • Fire
  • The internet 
  • Birds flocking 
  • Life itself 

These are all examples of emergent properties that can’t be controlled or predicted by mere humans. Culture in general is a strong emergent property of memes, language and writing systems.

A Raglan tale: The seabirds and the storm

A few years ago in my hometown, Raglan, thousands upon thousands of prion and fairy prion, (web-footed seabirds only normally seen on the open ocean) were washed up on our beaches. The whole of the West coast of NZ experienced some terrible storms, with high winds and turbulent sea conditions.

Prion - seabird

The birds’ food sources had been affected by the oceans churning. Starved and exhausted from trying to catch their normal food of krill and small crustaceans, they were so weak and wasted that, when they tried to fly, they were blown inland, ending up in gardens, school yards, and on the roads. 

I was among dozens of residents who picked up these beautiful but exhausted birds from all around town. Some of us waded into the ocean to retrieve those too tired to swim, and took them by the car load to the vet. 

Not one bird survived

This heartbreaking incident had a big impact on our community and reminded us of just how connected we all are. The community’s response, a passionate effort to rescue these birds, showcased the interconnectedness of natural events and human empathy.

It’s a vivid and sad illustration of how changes in one part of a system—the weather—can have a profound impact on other parts, like wildlife and human communities.

Remember that NLP assumption?

“The processes inside a person and between a person and their environment are interlinked.”

Let’s examine a human example to illustrate how this might apply in an NLP coaching session:

Let’s imagine a quiet and submissive wife and mother has asked for my help to achieve her goal of improving her confidence and getting a job outside the home. 

Helping the woman improve her self confidence should be a simple matter.

But I also need to help her consider the implications that achieving her goal will have on the other systems to which she belongs. And form strategies to handle those impacts.

We need to examine how the ‘system’ will change

  • How will the changes she wants to make affect her husband, children, the roles each play, the distribution of chores etc? 
  • Will her husband feel threatened by her new sense of self? 
  • How will the children react to her not being so available? 
  • How will she make time to visit her mother regularly? 
  • How will her other relationships change when she has more confidence?
  • And so on.

Failure to take a systemic approach (by addressing these and other questions) and developing solutions, may mean any changes made will become unsustainable and therefore fail in the long term. The system may catapult my client back into her current role as a quiet, submissive wife and mother.

Taking a systems approach reinforces the need to take into account a lot more than just cause-and-effect type relationships.

It’s common sense really

We do not exist in isolation (although sometimes it might be tempting to try it!)

In our own lives, in relationships, in nature and in our relationship to nature we belong to numerous systems. It’s a fact, whether we like it or not.

The sooner we all recognise, understand and consider this the better 

Then perhaps we’ll stop making daft choices—and destroying our planet as if we have another one to go to!

As we journey through this interconnected world, let’s embrace our role as stewards, creators, and participants in this magnificent symphony of systems. Together, we can weave a future that resonates with the beauty of balance and the wisdom of interconnectedness.

Crafting a future of harmony

As we wade through this complex, yet fascinating world of systems, the power of our choices becomes clear. Let’s strive for actions that promote balance and sustainability, fostering a world where each system—natural, social, or personal—thrives in harmony.

Weaving your own thread

In the intricate web of life, every thread—every action, every decision—counts.

water creating ripples representing our effect on the systems of which we're a part.

Our everyday choices, like pebbles tossed into a pond, create waves that travel far and wide. Whether it’s the products we buy—or refuse to buy—the energy we use, the rubbish we leave behind, or the way we interact with others, we’re continuously contributing to the grand tapestry of interconnected systems.

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Tags: Communication skills, Perception, Resilience, Systems, Thinking and mindset


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