Five Horizons of Systems Mastery

Philippe Vandenbroeck
22 October 2020

In common parlance ‘systems thinking’ is understood as ‘thinking in systems’ (as the title of Donella Meadows’ posthumously published, widely read book suggests). It relies on systems concepts — such as stocks, flows, feedback loops, network and hierarchy — to structure the problem solving process in relation to particular design challenges.

‘Systems practice’ goes beyond that. It is ‘systems thinking and doing’, or ‘system praxis’. The thinking cannot be dissociated from intervening in the messy world around us. Systems practice is ‘learning for action’ (to borrow the title from another important book in the systems literature) in relation to situations that are seen as problematic and asking for improvement.

How does one become a systems practitioner? Below I am offering a hypothesis that mirrors my own path of professional and personal development. It is structured as a journey that moves sequentially across five horizons. Each horizon is meant to be understood as a stage of development.

I have labeled the five horizons as follows:

Horizon 1: Tools

Horizon 2: Method

Horizon 3: Learning

Horizon 4: Ethos

Horizon 5: Epistemology

For each horizon I briefly describe the capabilities required to engage in systems practice at that level. I make a brief note about how this was reflected in my personal journey as systems practitioner. And I provide a thumbnail sketch of a practice example that connects to the spirit of this particular horizon. The practice examples all relate to one particular real-world setting in which I and my colleagues at shiftN have worked over a number of years.