This is the 6th in a series of postings on the theme of whole systems thinking.
The whole system’s principle of “equifinality,” a term coined by the father of systems theory, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, holds that in open systems, for those that have external interactions, a given end state can be reached by many potential means. To lock on to a single pathway, observation or solution can overlook a simpler or better way to reach a goal. The advice then is to reserve judgment and keep an open mind.
Beyond ideas and perspectives, equifinality has implications for individuals within social systems, suggesting that each member has equal opportunity to affect the outcome of the whole—by paying attention to potential solutions and staying open to alternative pathways to reach a goal—noting that any change will affect the output or outcome. Change any element, person or function, however slightly, and the system will perform differently than it otherwise would. Stated positively, no matter how small, invisible or seemingly insignificant a person’s function within a system, they exert an influence on its performance and outcome.
A rock group is an open system composed of interacting members. As such, it performs differently each time the performers take the stage. Things happen. One musician substitutes for another. A guitar is not properly tuned. The drummer is trying out new sticks. The lead singer is depressed. An amplifier is replaced and now the sound is different. Likewise, corporate cultures change when an employee begins to eat lunch at his desk, when a mother brings her toddler to work and when an executive begins wearing jeans. It’s the reason we can’t step into the same river twice. Every millisecond, the water molecules are exchanged; stones move; leaves fall in; the wind and fish contribute to turbulence. The example I cited for my students has to do with film and television production considered as a social system. Change one word in a script, decide not to stop for lunch, swap out a microphone or a light—every decision alters the outcome. We see it in television series, where success in the first season generates more money, more expensive talent and new writers who have their own ideas about what will succeed in the next season. Time and larger budgets bring about changes and suddenly The Good Wife isn’t so “good” anymore, Sherlock’s cases become more complicated and are anything but Elementary and Person Of Interest shifts from stories about people to cyber warfare.
Contemplating The Personal And Social Consequences of Equifinality
In the above photograph, each chip is a bit of data. Displayed as they are, the whole represents a field of potential, meaning the letters and numbers could be put together in a staggering number of ways. Like magnetic letters on a refrigerator door, a child could use them to spell the word “dog.” Another child could come along and use the same three letters to spell the word “god.” And within the whole system in everything we see, there’s equal opportunity to affect an infinite variety of changes.
Personally, equifinality gives us a reason to appreciate that everyday choices and behaviors make a difference, whether intended or not. Linda’s switch from merely “fresh” to “organic” head lettuce affected changes—in our bodies and in the local supplier, farming systems and health systems, even the economy. Slight, yes. But nonetheless real. And little things add up. Every time we turn on the radio or television or engage in social media, we contribute to the sustainability of the medium and cast a vote for more of its content. Recently, we’re beginning to see the marketers behind the curtain, quantifying every decision we make, and modifying their systems accordingly. There’s big money in monitoring our choices and behaviors. And the principle of equifinality can be used to affect change. For instance, Linda and I are telling restaurant employees why we bring along our own paper straws and cloth napkins—we want them to know that it cuts down on plastic and paper. Again, a small thing, but in every instance, people understand and appreciate our choice.
Knowing that my choices and behaviors are affecting change, I can be more aware and deliberate in my communication and interactions. What message do I want to send? Do I really want to sustain this activity? Do I want to cast a vote for more of this product to be produced? Is this information, service or philosophy in alignment with my values? Does this situation lift me up or inspire me? Do I want to support a company that isn’t socially responsible?
It occurs to me that this sounds like a lot of self-regulating introspection. Editing this post, I hesitated and observed that the individual words, ideas, and questions I’m expressing are affecting my readers, and who knows what else. I paused. Do I really want to put this information and these self-regulating questions out there? Indeed, I do, because I’m advocating that we dig deep into our authentic selves before making choices and engaging others. Doing so with more awareness of the consequences, however small, seems to me to be a contribution to the greater whole systems—holons—in which I participate.
I have to admit that there are times when I go against the voice of my authentic self, as when I consume more sugar and television than I know I should. Sometimes we just want what we want—and we accept the consequences. On balance, however, I find comfort in the act of making “a good faith effort.”
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.
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