Transforming Systems by Mr. Arun Maira
“The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” — Marcel Proust.
This book gives you new eyes in that, it provides us a comprehensive toolkit of how to perceive a problem with depth. Mr. Arun Maira walks us through relatable stories of five entrepreneurs who grapple through critical questions with respect to their life’s purpose, organizational challenges, and ethical dilemmas, and apply a new orientation of thinking to solve them and lead better lives for self and others. This new orientation consists of the interdisciplinary lens of systems thinking, ethical leadership and deep listening.
The book makes us reflect on a wide range of questions that can be put into broadly three themes.
First are the set of existential questions that we as individuals and as organizations need to ask ourselves. What is the purpose of our being? What role do we play in the larger system? In stark contrast to the economic view of ‘rational, self-interested’ beings, the book implores us to think beyond business and profits. In the rut to measure outcomes more easily, how valid are the success metrics in form of financial resources inputted or size of the organization or profits and are they representative of the purpose?
Second, the book asks us to evaluate technology that we have so far blindly trusted in the name of development. The very foundation of AI, for instance, is learning from humans. AI is Likened to a parent teaching right vs wrong to a child. Different parents are guided by different sets of values. What then, is the right teaching? The world appears to be ever more divided with the advent of tools like social media that were ironically supposed to unite us. As Mr. Arun Maira says, “Social media has created conceptually gates communities” owing to the algorithms that recommend more of what the user likes, shutting out the other. “This leads to mobocracy, not democracy”, the author says.
Thirdly, the book talks about issues concerning the 17 SGDs and the ways to tackle it. Currently, these are viewed as rather disparate problems each competing for resources, attention, or funding. However, all are interdependent. For example, solving for Poverty should be seen along with enabling decent work and economic growth, which further should be viewed alongside innovation and infrastructure. Mr. Maira argues that these 17 goals should be seen as an interconnected set of 16 goals with the seventeenth regarding partnerships, as the enabler to bind them all.
To go about solutions to above critical questions, the book gives us a framework summarized loosely by this diagram:
One of the three broad orientations that Mr. Maira talks about is Systems Thinking. Systems thinking, as opposed to the conventional linear thinking, views a problem in context of multiple interrelated forces. Therefore, the relationships among, and shapes of these forces as opposed to their sizes must be studied to tackle the problem. He provides the exhibit of China’s demographic crisis that arose due to the seemingly well-meaning population control measures that later led to serious social and economic ramifications owing to China’s aging population. Thus, he builds a case for cross-disciplinary work between demographic and social scientists, as the inputs from the latter would have led the government to foresee the impact of changed population shape on social norms and economy.
This new paradigm of thinking is especially relevant in the modern-day context, wherein a lot of problems that we face today — rise in zoonotic diseases and pandemics, climate change and psycho-social issues such as the migrant’s crisis, due to the lockdown related covid-19 response in India. As the author himself puts it, “redesigning an airplane while flying it” requires a systems solution otherwise the whole airplane would come crashing down. As is seen in the environmental and social crisis that we’re facing today due to the supposed ‘solutions’ of the past.
To learn systems thinking, the book suggests, one must also learn to appreciate the views different from what our discipline and/or social context has attuned us to. Mr. Maira uses the rider (the voice of reason) and elephant (societal context) analogy as given by Haidt to bring home a point that a lot of elephants or people with different worldviews need to engage in a dialogue. Only then, can we collectively come to decipher the whole elephant, from the famous Buddhist parable, that multiple blind men perceive only parts of. Understanding the whole is the first step to solving problems and rid ourselves of the ‘conceptually gated communities’ of the modern world. And to enable that, we need to be adept at Deep listening. He suggests that listening encompasses not only understanding ‘what’ the person is speaking but also understanding the belief system behind what they say and mindfully observing our own reactions to it. Taking a step up from listening to mindful observation and interdisciplinary thinking, enables us to see the whole iceberg of structures and mental models that lead to events instead of just objectively viewing the surface level event.
In the context of an organization and how its constituents should be set up to lead change, we learn about Nancy’s organization that aims to build self-sustaining local solutions to the global problem of enabling better care for the growing population of underserved elderly. Relating the concept of Complex Self Adaptive Systems referred to by Mr. Maira, inspired by nature’s evolution system, to the ‘networked’ type of organizations, we learn about the necessary set of principles that successful networks leverage to govern themselves. An important point that the author makes here is to be cognizant of our own motivations as leaders and changemakers and to always remember that we are here to enable others to take charge and not sate our egos by providing for help, no matter how well-meaning our intentions.
In the book, as we learn about how organizations should organize themselves to elicit commitment from its constituents and thereby constantly adapt and learn, Mr. Maira parallelly addresses the need for business citizenship. He implores the corporates and individuals alike to answer the deeper existential questions of ‘what our purpose should be’ and the right thing to do. Especially when the ‘right’ is subjective such as collective good vs individual good or utilitarianism. The answers to achieve this ethical orientation, he suggests, lie in our ancient philosophies, one of which is the Buddhist eightfold path which begins with right mindfulness, view, and intention.
While traversing through the journeys of the five people in the book, I questioned some of my own ways of thinking such as the self-limiting beliefs that come in the way of achieving goals or the ‘blame game’ mentality amidst crises. I read this book alongside Peter Senge’s Fifth Discipline wherein he proposes the idea of personal mastery to clarify our vision and Siddharth by Hermann Hesse which is the journey of a man on his way to lose the idea of ego. The three books incidentally gave converging insights into how we need to view ourselves as part of something bigger and at the same time, have a mindset open enough to view the interconnectedness of the huge system that we’re a part of. Viewing self not in isolation, but as a part of the system, is empowering for it makes us realize that we are in fact capable to anchor our realities by leveraging the ‘creative tension’ as Senge propounds in his book.
Transforming Systems by Arun Maira provides a starting point to develop a systems mindset and at the same time be cognizant of the ethical tradeoffs that we make in our day to day lives as individuals, employees, or leaders of an organization. It tells us how, as ordinary people, we can emerge as fireflies to dispel the darkness of the problems that humanity is facing today!