I’m teaching a first-year course on “Sustainable Systems” at Parsons School of Design this spring. It’s a cafeteria-style course meant to nurture hundreds of new students with a mental diet rich in complex concepts like systems thinking, resilience, and wicked problems—all topped off with a decadent sprinkle of skills in scientific literacy and critical inquiry. Students shuffle along the conceptual cafeteria line with their trays stretched out for a scoop of this or a spoon full of that, and by the end of the semester they should be loosening their belts to make room for all the environmentally enlightened knowledge they’ve bolted down in sixteen weeks.
Like real vitamins and minerals, though, there may be a hidden danger to ingesting a handful of good ideas all boiled down into sanitized and uniform pills. Apparently it’s a lot healthier to get your nutrition from whole foods. Something similar might be true of all the important (albeit stripped-down) concepts we’re supposed to cover in a course like “Sustainable Systems,” all so easily inserted into a syllabus like a list of Supplement Facts on the back of a bottle of Centrum. My challenge, I think, is to find the whole food version of a sixteen week experience in thinking about, caring about, and creating Sustainable Systems.
I’ve veered a little off task with this two-paragraph tirade about adjunct teaching in 2016. But this detour does help explain my excitement at recently finding Tom Wujec‘s wonderful TED Talk on How to Make Toast—making this my second weekly TED Talk review of 2016 and, likely, a central theme in the first session of “Sustainable Systems.” [Spoiler alert: if you are one of my eighteen students reading this after Googling your professors at the start of the semester, you should skip the rest of this post and get to work watching that documentary on Ray and Charles Eames I assigned by email. There may be a quiz.]
Wujec’s talk introduces us to some of the most basic skills in systems thinking: 1) using simple images to codify and communicate complex concepts; 2) creating moveable modules of thought to support shuffling, sorting, coding, and categorizing; 3) practicing the process of “one, some, and many” in collaborative brainstorming, and 4) iterating through a few rounds of critical review before settling on a solution. I won’t try to replicate Wujec’s method; it’s difficult to improve on his presentation in the video, so just take the fifteen minutes and enjoy it for yourself:
Thinking with Images
Why are images arranged in diagrams more effective at representing nodes and flows than descriptive text? Images seem to offer an efficient way of packaging a lot of nuanced and complex data into relatively simple bundles for our brains to process (for more about this, check out Chapters 1 & 2 and page 14 of David Rock’s (2009) book Your Brain at Work).
Our “Mind’s Eye” wastes less energy than our Mind’s… Teleprompter? Word processor? You get the picture. This is a good excuse for finding the time to take some drawing classes, which might be as good for your brain as learning a second language. You don’t need really need formal training, though, to tap into the power of images in using systems thinking in your work. Dan Roam’s Back of the Napkin (2008) shows that even simple stick figures will suffice. If that’s still too intimidating, you can always grab an old magazine, a scissor, and a glue stick and collage your thoughts in a notebook. Just save the words for later when it’s time to tell a more detailed narrative story about what you’ve discovered by rearranging images.
Working With Moveable Ideas
One of my colleagues came up with a new nickname for me after a day-long brainstorming process last summer. It was “3M,” an homage to the company that made the hundreds of sticky notes we used to collaboratively overhaul the first draft of an environmental education program. We individually scribbled idea after idea on note after note, spending hours sorting, rearranging, removing, and supplementing our results. After weeks of struggling to verbally communicate a tangle of ideas in meetings, we found ourselves liberated to make new associations and create outlandish solutions simply by manipulating a thicket of stickies on a wall. We had a lot of hard work putting our ideas into action after that session, but it really felt like the point when we were all finally working toward the same vision for the new program.
Community organizers and action researchers are well aware of the power of capturing ideas in bite-size bits when brainstorming as a group. They call it a “pile sort“—a tactile and graphic way of discovering and developing themes and concepts that are held in common by the individual group members. Wujec argues that ideas expressed in modular form invite us to tinker and go through multiple rounds of re-thinking instead of marrying ourselves to the first solution that pops into our minds. Making ideas mobile helps us make ideas better over time.
One, Some, Many
Wujec urges viewers to collaboratively sort their ideas in silence. There’s something about the complex argument that can result from verbal communication that stifles the process. Stick to quietly comparing, contrasting, and collating the ideas on each note and you’ll likely arrive at a richer and more inclusive collection of new ideas.
There’s a similar practice in adult education that I first learned as the rule of “One, Some, Many.” Jane Vella, a leading thinker in adult education, proposes that that safety and sound relationships are two of the core principles of creative learning in groups. Adults exploring a new skill or concept will experience a greater sense of safety to experiment if they can start with a quiet moment to work on their own. Afterward, participants can work in small groups to compare, synthesize, and summarize their individual ideas before moving on to do the same a whole large gathering—one of many ways to foster sound relationships in a vulnerable creative process.
Giving people some time to work on their own may help prevent the worst kinds of group-think typically found in brainstorming sessions chaired by a manger wielding a chunky dry erase marker shouting, “Come on, people, there are no bad ideas!” Turns out there really are bad ideas, and recent research suggests that traditional brainstorming practices are really good at churning them out. So give the One, Some, Many approach a try if you take a stab at diagramming how to make toast.
It seems silly to belabor the benefits of iterative problem solving. We’ve all been told that if at first we don’t succeed, we should try and try again. Complex problems almost always result in unintended consequences that create even more complex problems (they wouldn’t be complex otherwise). Circling back to tweak and improve ideas can help solve those new puzzles that pop up and make the solutions to the initial problem more impactful.
Most of us had a very linear experience of learning, beginning in Kindergarten and intensifying as the years went by. Our schoolroom lessons were arranged to follow chapters in a text book, moving progressively from one topic to another without ever taking the time to revisit and unpack a particularly thorny idea. Miss a beat and you’re left behind. There’s just no time to go back. This is why web-based video tutorials like the popular Kahn Academy have become so popular in recent years. They start from the radically simple idea that students should be able to rewind until they get it.
Learning is a lot like the creative processes involved in problem solving through systems thinking. They both involve taking apart and rearranging our understanding of the world, coming out with a changed perspective in the end. Wujec seems to agree that making time and space to return (and return and return) to first ideas is an essential part of the process.
So why are so many organizations so awful at figuring out how to make toast? That’s probably a question best left for another time.