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The Future (and Present) of Work Is All About Systems

Posted by Devin Cole  January 19, 2012 12:07 PM

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Image by Ben Rose

In my last blog "Forays into the Future of Work," I ask, "What skills and qualities will serve us in the future?" and offer the idea that the world needs connectors. It’s a simple enough idea to grasp, but it’s worth exploring because it can easily get lost in our day-to-day routines.

I say the world needs connectors because indeed systems and systems thinking are key to meaningful, lasting change. Whether we’re talking about what the future of work holds for us and our organizations, or the ever-so-tricky social and economic challenges so many of us are facing currently, becoming aware of the systems we find ourselves in is crucial. And if we’re going to adapt to a fast-changing world and build new kinds of companies designed to thrive in a new kind of sustainable economy, then systems thinking is a skill all of us need to wrap our heads around, embrace, and let change us.

We must bring systems thinking out of the university, tech world, and think tanks, and into our workplaces and communities.

In the words of the late systems theorist and MIT researcher Donella H. Meadows, “a system is a set of things—people, cells, molecules, or whatever—interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time.” In her book Thinking in Systems, Meadows explains how our biggest societal problems persist in spite of the incredible time and talent we dedicate toward eradicating them because they are systems problems—“undesirable behaviors characteristic of the system structures that produce them.” The only way we’ll make progress, she says, is if in whatever system we find ourselves operating in, we “see the system as the source of its own problems, and find the courage and wisdom to restructure it.” This is what I think it means to be a connector.

I would say that most entrepreneurs, artists, thought leaders, and community organizers are natural systems thinkers and connectors. They synthesize information, making something new and useful out of seemingly disparate ideas. They translate ideas from one group to another so that an idea can be worked with and developed further by more people in more places at the right time. Challenging as it is, many of them leave traditional career paths in the dust and create flexible work schedules in order to feel free enough to do the work they see that needs to be done in their communities. And many of these connectors know that simply starting the conversation about change that needs to happen is as important as being the innovative individual, team, or company responsible for the next big breakthrough.

Fortunately, Boston already has a ton of connectors, whether they consider themselves connectors or not. Many Gen Y-ers and Millennials are natural connectors because in their lifetime they’ve already seen or are now witnessing the dying of old systems and the birth of new ones.

Unfortunately, an ability to recognize systems, connections, and patterns is not a skill our culture at large values quite yet. We like quick fixes and immediately visible gains and lean away from ideas that raise more questions for us than answers. This kind of linear, concrete thinking has served us well for a long time and will continue to serve us in some ways, but I believe that systems thinking and systems-related skills is where we'll find much-needed inspiration and new possibilities.

What do you think the future of work holds for us?

Lex Schroeder writes frequently on leadership, change, and creativity. She is Co-Founder and Managing Editor of The New Prosperity Initiative (NPi), a Program Associate at The Berkana Institute, and a Connector for Boston World Partnerships.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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