The Ripple Effects of Change (Part 1): Cats in Borneo

Have you ever made a decision that led to an unintended consequence? America’s Funniest Home Video’s has built a franchise on this premise. Trampolines, piñatas and grandparents on skateboards remind us that we have all been victims of this principle.

Effective leaders acquire skills which help them minimize the surprise of unintended consequences. In technical terms, we can do this through something called ‘systems thinking’. In layman’s language, this is simply a fancy term for becoming good at consequence consideration. This principle is wonderfully illustrated in this three minute video.

So in summary:

Systems Thinking Summary

Stay tuned next week to see how this ripple effect from driverless cars will have far-reaching impact!

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Jeff Suderman is a futurist, consultant and professor who works in the field of organizational development. He partners with clients to improve culture, leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and organizational future-readiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman Email:


Systems thinking: a cautionary tale (cats in Borneo)

The Problem with ‘7 Steps’ and ‘3 Things’: Embracing Complexity

My news feed is filled with articles that provide easy answers. Do these headlines sound familiar?

  • Seven steps to solving workplace conflict
  • Three things which will change your life
  • Four ways to raise healthy children
  • Five ingredients that will change your diet
  • You won’t believe #9!

Unfortunately, catchy headlines work! I often delve into these articles only to be disappointed with their content. I fear that this editorial trend is creating a culture of over-simplified solutions based on pop-culture principles. The core problem with catchy headlines is that most of the promised solutions trivialize complexity.

In his seminal book, The Fifth Disclipline, Peter Senge reminds us that the complexity of our daily interactions are increasing. As a result, he proposes that effectiveness requires that we identify the structures which underlie complex situations. This is called systems thinking and  requires us to evaluate how different parts interrelate over time and how they relate to other systems. For example, disciplining an employee for tardiness is ineffective unless it considers related factors such as the impact of their special-needs child or an addiction problem. Addressing an issue like this requires that we evaluate the individuals system.

These questions may help you as you seek to identify and assess the systems which are at work in your complex world.

  1. Do we thrive amidst rules or principles? Catchy headlines tend to rely on rules. I believe success is derived from being principle driven versus rules driven. However, understanding principles take work.
  2. Do successful people or organizations adopt or adapt? What works in one place doesn’t always work in another. Successful people learn from others, but they always adapt these lessons to ensure they fit their own situation. Adapting requires that we identify the principles of success rather than duplicating someone else’s practices (see #1!).
  3. Are people or organizations like gears or snowflakes? A colleague recently referred to his clients as snowflakes. They all appear similar from a distance, but when viewed closely, every one is unique and different. The snowflake embodies the concept of complexity and why we should challenge easy answers.
  4. Is your environment changing (open) or unchanging (closed)? Rules and prescribed solutions work when there is little change in an environment. However, there are very few closed systems in our world! When you acknowledge your changing environment, you will be forced to look for patterns over time, see the big picture, identify complex interactions, and validate your understanding of ‘what causes what’ (Hughes & Beatty, 2005, p. 74).  

I was tempted to title this blog, “The one thing your MBA didn’t teach you”, but I had to follow my own advice! Successful people are able to synthesize complexity and that cannot be accomplished in ‘seven steps’ or by doing ‘three things’.


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Jeff Suderman is a professor and consultant who works in the field of organizational development. He partners with clients to improve leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and their FutureReadiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman


Hughes, R., & Beatty, K. (2005). Becoming a strategic leader your role in your organization’s enduring success. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Unlearning: The new leadership skill

In order to thrive in the future we are going to need to learn how to unlearn. Amidst unparalleled change, leaders can no longer rely on ‘what they know’. Instead, effective leaders will be defined by the capacity to unlearn outdated and ineffective ways of doing things. More importantly, they will also have the capacity to help their organizations do the same.

A recent article in The Futurist defined this as unlearning and uplearning. The authors note, “one of the most important skills in a time of immense change is to develop the capacity to unlearn old ideas that are increasingly obsolete and learn how to reason, adapt, and act at a higher level of complexity”. Here is what this looks like:

Unlearning: This skill requires us to be able to identify and unlearn ideas and activities that have worked in the past but do not work in today or will not in the future. For example, teachers are no longer sole content providers/experts as a result of the internet. This week, I have observed my children being taught in classrooms (bricks-and-morter as well as on-line) as well as through gamification, Kahn Academy, Wikipedia and Google Translate. Their learning comes from many content providers and experts! However, the teacher as the expert is a longstanding tradition that drives our educational system. We need to unlearn how we teach in order to improve education.

Uplearning: The ability to be comfortable working with complex problems, not because you know the answers, but because you are equipped with critical thinking skills . These skills – such as synthesis, adaptability, systems-thinking and a multidisciplinary approach- enables individuals to ‘pull’ themselves into the unknown. Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla Motors, demonstrates uplearning in his proposed ‘Hyperloop’, a solar-powered transportation system designed to move people between LA and San Francisco in about 30 minutes. There is currently no way to accomplish this dream. However, he believes that a group of people committed to uplearning can learn how to do so.

This change will be challenging if we rely on historic models of education. Richard Ogle highlighted this in his book Smart World when he noted, “Western education is based on two fundamental principles…rational thinking and content of knowledge that already exists … and, by definition, traditional learning looks backward. In a world of radical change, imagination, intuition, insight and innovation are required …and, by definition, learning looks forward”. Education itself must transform by applying unlearning and uplearning principles.

Alvin Toffler once said, “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn”. While the terms unlearning and uplearning may not be common, you can expect them to become cornerstones of effective education and leadership in the decades ahead.

What are the common barriers you encounter that inhibit uplearning and unlearning?

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Ogle, R. (2007). Smart world: Breakthrough creativity and the new science of ideas. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, p. 113.

Budd, B., de la Tega, M., Grove, B., & Smyre, R. (July-August 2014). Creating a future forward college: What if…Collaborations in transformational learning. The Futurist (Vol. 48, No. 4). Retrieved Octtober 21 from