Systems Thinking - Perception of Perception as Key

Seminar Paper, 2005

19 Pages, Grade: 1,0


(1) Introduction

When I started to capture the readings for this paper I came across the above mentioned quote and realized the close connection between the way we perceive reality and how perception is the key to systems thinking at the same time.

Systems’ thinking in particular means to stop assessing reality in fragments and details but instead looking at wholes. A true systems thinker therefore observes dynamic interrelationships and patterns rather than mere “snapshots”. As it will turn out by looking at the example of Chris Bangle, chief-designer at BMW, system thinking can especially considered to be an art. The goal of this paper is moreover to show how “our actions create our reality” (Senge 1994, 1) and how we can be the craftsmen.

I will moreover briefly apply the “Appreciation Influence Control”-Model (AIC) by Bill Smith and Elisabeth Davis to underline the important role perception plays in systems thinking. This model centers on how to achieve and realize the full potential of a purpose (goal). The overall philosophy is to come to understand the “power” which is involved in the organizing process. In detail, the process itself consists of three levels that have to be properly ‘managed’ in order to succeed in realizing the purpose aiming at:

(1) Appreciation - Relating to the overall system that is relevant (information)
(2) Influence - Relation to the components of the system (transformation)
(3) Control - Directing resources to attain the purpose (formation).

I have therefore separated this paper into three parts according to the AIC-model. In the first part I will focus on the importance of perception and how perception impacts “appreciation”. In the second part I will consider how as consequence of a different perception of reality the organizing process has been transformed to systems thinking - the “influence” of changed perception. In the final and third part, I will then show how systems thinking can take place in daily practice and how it can be acquired.

(2) Information: Perception and Uncertainty

Understanding the concept of “perception” means to come to understand how and why humans behave in certain ways. Kurt Lewin therefore stated that an individual’s behavior is composed of its prerequisites (e.g. knowledge, attitudes) as well as of the context of the situation (Stroh et al. 2002, 31). However, both aspects are interlinked as our own prerequisites, such as our attitudes, which for instance contain stereotypes or prejudices (“our way of thinking”), form how we perceive the situations we are in. In consequence, Ellinor and Gerad (1998, 68) put it in their article “Suspension of Judgement” in a way that our thinking determines our actions. However, as systems’ thinking requires to look at the “whole”, our perceptions automatically interfere with this goal as for instance a pre-occupation with certain prejudices automatically blocks attaining further information.

In the context of systems thinking, Senge is for instance very aware of the important role “perception” plays as he writes that “what we see depends on what we are prepared to see” (Senge in Shafritz et al. 2005, 443).

The roman philosopher Pliny the Elder (23AD - 79AD) once stated that ”The only certainty is that nothing is certain.” A very important factor therefore that shapes our “perception” is our culturally formed strategy to cope with the factor of uncertainty. First of all, the background theory for this is the terror-management-theory (Solomon et al. 1991). This theory explains that mankind is constantly in fear of death and that we cope with this fear by developing cultural patterns (structures) which reduce this fear. At first glance, it might be difficult to grasp the connection to the concept of perception, but as Hofstede illustrates in his book “Cultures and Organizations” (1991, 122) uncertainty creates anxiety. He therefore argues that anxiety changes our perception of reality - to him, anxiety is the fear of a non-existent object: it is created in our mind and in consequence influences our perception. He moreover illustrates that it is hazardous for humans to not know “what is going on” or “what will be” - such as not knowing when we will die. A very good example of how we overcome this uncertainty is the fact that we set-up laws or even things such as a technostructure (e.g. the traffic rules). These structural patterns guarantee a certain behaviour which then reduce uncertainty. However, the way we set up these structures is strongly dependent on how our anxiety, due to uncertainty, shapes our perception.

To sum up, in order to cope with uncertainty, mankind begins the “organizing process”, or as Weber would put it: setting up a “bureaucracy” (Weber in Shafritz et al. 2005, 73-75). The existence of uncertainty therefore guides the need to be in control of situations. Organizations for instance set-up rules for employees, to make certain that they will act in a desired way. However, as anxiety produces mis-perceptions of reality as history has proven (see part 3 on transformation), man has to learn to appreciate uncertainty, to put it into the words of the AIC- model. We cannot control uncertainty in every situation and doing so would mean limiting oneself to a certain set of actions. Appreciation in this case means to accept reality as it is and this is therefore the key to systems thinking. As we learn to appreciate the environment and being aware of the important role our perception plays in this case, we open ourselves up to the gateway to systems thinking.

I have done so by appreciating (illustrating) that there is a very important implicit assumption concerning our ability to be systems thinkers: the fact that we have truly openminded perception for the bigger picture by means of systems thinking.

(3) Transformation: The Journey to Systems Thinking

The philosopher J. Krishnamurti once stated “If you begin to understand what you are without trying to change it, then what you are undergoes a transformation.” The last chapter on “information” of this essay therefore gave insight to how “perception” influences our understanding of reality (structures). Moreover, by understanding this, we start to open up to systems thinking.

Over the past century this exactly has happened as scientists and managers (society) have created a greater awareness for who we are. This has caused a transformation in the way we organize: we started to move from being linear thinkers to becoming systems thinkers. In the following, I will therefore describe this transformation process.

At the end of the 19th century, Max Weber was one of the leading academics to develop insights into the organizing process. Although he developed various concepts on power and authority, his concept on bureaucracy (Weber in Shafritz et al. 2005, 73-78) was widely used those days. This particular concept especially aims at controlling the organizational process (strict regulations, hierarchy and filing of documents) - controlling people. Interestingly, this concept was developed in a culture (Germany) which strongly tries to avoid uncertainty (Hofstede 1991, 110). According to Hofstede, such a background has an impact on organizational structures in which managers are asked to offer answers and not questions, conflicts should be eliminated and jobs should be clarified and fixed. In addition, such an “uncertainty avoiding environment” has an impact on “leaders” in which they are more focussed on operational problems (control level) than on strategic problems (appreciation and influence level). In general, Hofstede has especially discovered that western cultures in general are more focused avoiding uncertainty than eastern (Asian) cultures in general.

In this matter, it comes at no surprise that due to the desire to avoid uncertainty, organizations were organized “very specifically” during the Machine Age / the Industrial Revolution. In this matter, Ackoff describes that this overall time period depicts managers (society) who believed in cause-effect relationships while aiming at reducing events to a single element or cause (Ackoff ~1970, 8-12). This circumstance can especially be discovered in the “Principles of Scientific Management” developed by Frederick Taylor in 1916. In this case for instance, Taylor suggests separating the mind-work from the body-work of the worker: thus, all the planning and organizing of the working process should be accomplished by separate staff. In consequence, the workforce (Taylor in Shafritz et al. 2005, 66) only executed a pre-described procedure; for instance, shovelling was specifically determined - there was no room for “free thinking”. Ackoff illustrates that “man was reduced to behaving like machines doing very simple repetitive tasks” (Ackoff ~1970, 11).


Excerpt out of 19 pages


Systems Thinking - Perception of Perception as Key
The George Washington University  (Dept. of Organizational Sciences)
Management Systems
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ISBN (eBook)
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421 KB
Definition of systems thinking: Systems' thinking in particular means to stop assessing reality in fragments and details but instead looking at wholes. A true systems thinker therefore observes dynamic interrelationships and patterns rather than mere snapshots. Goal of this paper: introduction to systems thinking, consequences of systems thinking for management, consideration of historic managemet approaches such as by Weber, Taylor, Ackhoff, Senge and also Hofstede
Systems, Thinking, Perception, Management, Systems
Quote paper
Thomas Lagner (Author), 2005, Systems Thinking - Perception of Perception as Key, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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