A Bigger Picture

Here’s a fun Russian Doll sort of starting place: We are systems within systems within systems.

Yup, human beings are a whole collection of systems that nest in a series of greater systems.

Just have a look at what makes up a human body and you’ll see a skeletal system, a circulatory system, a nervous system, endocrine, digestive, respiratory, reproductive and immune systems…

Every single cell the body is also made up of a slew of systems.

And so Russian Dolls we are.

Maybe it’s a function of age, maybe just a shift in thinking brought on by a year in which it became all but impossible (at least for me) to miss the interconnectedness of things, systems and beings.

As the pandemic has tick-tocked its way through the calendar, I’ve felt more and more like I’m smack in the middle of a many-layered Venn diagram.

From this center, it’s easier to see all the things I’m a part of and, at the same time, all the things that are part of me.

In fact, the longer I hang in the middle, the more difficult it becomes to see myself as separate from much of anything.

When it comes to wholeness and seeing a bigger picture of where one fits in an expanding Universe, it’s easy to be pulled in philosophical, mystical, metaphysical and/or religious directions – all of which I enjoy, by the way – yet I want to keep the focus on the (hopefully) less-loaded notion of systems and nesting dolls.

Consider this an offering, an invitation to reflect on my examples and playfully explore your own complex and, I’d imagine, sometimes crazy, crossroads.

If you’re in the mood, you may also pick up a tip or two on leading differently.

Here are a few words on from good ol’ Wikipedia’s page on Systems Thinking: “A system is an entity with interrelated and interdependent parts; it is defined by its boundaries and is more than the sum of its parts…”

When I look at my world through a window, I see a man – let’s call him “Ken” – in his home, going about his work.

Ken lives in a body made up of different systems.

As I zoom in, I see him in his office space. He’s surrounded by books, client files, a couple of phones, a computer connected to an audio interface that feeds out to a pair of studio-monitor speakers. There’s a microphone on a boom-arm clamped onto an adjustable standing desk. On the wall behind him hang several electric guitars and a short-scale bass. Also hanging on that wall – and on every other wall of the office as well as most of the walls throughout the house – are his paintings and drawings.

Part of the system of Ken includes his own art and music. Pop a few more layers deep into his squat, bald Russian Doll and you’ll pull out a skiing doll, a cooking and bread-baking doll, a husband/partner doll, a father doll, a late-blooming bird-watching doll…

Of course, we could add all the other stuff that goes on a CV, on social media, on various to-do lists, gets filed under “spiritual practices” as well as passions and interests that make for a more complex, nuanced picture of who this man is as a system.

Zoom out and we see bigger dolls: Ken is part of a family system that nests in a community system that nests in a larger geographic system. All of that is nestled, of course, in an ecosystem. The local ecosystem is part of many other larger, broader systems that make up the Eastern part of the Atlantic watershed system, which is one section of the greater hydrological system that lives to the east of the Continental Divide.

Zoom out a bit more and the larger dolls get downright huge. There’s that whole North America area, a series of slowly shifting geological plates, a variety of human cultures nesting in the bigger picture of humanity and, of course, the curious blue planet third from a medium (ish) star at the center of a solar system on an edge of the Orion-Cygnus Arm, all of which is careening around the center of a galaxy affectionately known as “Milky Way.”

But wait, there’s more!

And I think you get the point/

Zooming out, Ken got kinda small kinda fast and it didn’t take long to build up those Venn diagram layers to illustrate a complex, multidimensional picture. It’s imperfect, but so be it.

One of the hallmarks of solid leaders is that they see and appreciate complexity. They understand, to a degree, their place within a given series of overlayed or otherwise interrelated systems. With humility and curiosity, they recognize that no single person, including themselves, has the capacity to know absolutely everything there is to know about all the moving parts of those nested systems.

And great, groundbreaking leaders (and thinkers) know that, more often than not, navigating complexity involves being willing to look in places that may have absolutely nothing to do with the circumstances at hand. They know that, while it may lead absolutely nowhere, having a conversation with an accomplished musician on the topic of dinosaurs might just unlock a solution to a nagging supply chain puzzle. They get that reading a great novel, rather than yet another personal growth book, could spark an idea that launches a new product line or solves a relationship conflict.

They seek out a bigger picture where dogmatic ideas and standard industry practices can shrink, making way for fresh ideas, processes and practices.

It’s often said that there’s nothing new in the Universe.

That doesn’t automatically mean there’s no longer a Universe worthy of exploration and discovery.

In fact, there’s a rather big Universe we all nest in, much like Russian Dolls.