The start

Gary Bartlett stumbled upon Eliyahu Goldratt's Critical Chain in 1997.  Critical Chain is a business novel on a counter-intuitive way of scheduling and managing projects - one of a number of business novels and books that Eli Goldratt has written on his brainchild, the Theory Of Contraints.

What attracted him to TOC - in addition to the counter-intuitivity of the solutions - was the TOC Thinking Processes.  Until then, he and his wife and thinking partner, Lynne, had bashed their minds against challenges and apparently intractable problems, using very basic lateral thinking techniques informed by systems thinking until eventually the insight emerged.  The Thinking Processes offered a more robust structure and process that would allow one to gain the insight reliably, within a far shorter period of time.

Gary read everything he could lay his hands on TOC, received training in its application (Jonah programme) and began applying it in the telecommunications company he was working in at the time.

The challenge

The New Zealand Goldratt Institute representative was sceptical of Gary's ability to simplify TOC, make it more accessible to business executives and advance its adoption within New Zealand, leaving Gary and his Lynne, no option but to try to find or create something even more powerful - and even easier to use and apply.

Desperately searching for ways of enhancing the TOC concept, Gary discovered TRIZ and NLP and developed deeper insights into the foundational techniques and methods listed on the Origins page - and began integrating them into a methodology that capitalised on the strengths and unique contributions of each.  It was exacting and time-consuming work.

The breakthrough

Invited to speak at the International Conference on Thinking in 2001, Gary & Lynne tried to compress overviews of the various techniques and the evolving methodology into a 40 minute presentation.

In trying to distinguish - over weeks - between the various methods it suddenly dawned on them that the methods had more in common than in difference, for example:

  1. They all are designed to address complexity.
  2. They all had identified structures and interaction-types within complexity (conflict / contradiction / dilemma / decision, for example).
  3. They all had a blend of system science and cognitive science.

It was a mind-bending insight!

What was most staggering, was how long it had taken for them to gain the insight when, in hindsight, it was so obvious.  Could there be similarity and commonality elsewhere in the complex world that our civilisation is blind to, for some reason?

The Fractal Phenomenon

Tentatively - and very ineptly, at first - they tested the emerging insight out on complex and challenging situations and began to see that there was even more to it than they'd first suspected.

Not only was there commonality that had been invisible to them (and presumably others - and possibly even the whole of society) before, but that this commonality repeated throughout and across domains that had previously been siloed in their thinking.

They called the primary discovery the Fractal Phenomenon - fractals are geometric patterns that are similar at different levels of magnification.

The Systemic Thinking Technique

The next step was to develop a technique for deliberately and systematically finding the repeating patterns.

Our society has equiped us to identify difference very well.  But has done a dismal job of equiping us to find similarity.  (For example, from an early age, we're taught to describe the difference between things: 2 and 3, black and white, good and bad.  But we're seldom taught to decribe the similarities between things: 2 and 3, black and white, good and bad.)

Could learning to deliberately and unerringly see similarity unleash trapped value and opportunity that our society is currently oblivious to?  Could this perhaps be the key, not only to personal and organisational performance, but also global harmony and synergy?

The simple technique that they developed was really a technique framework:

  1. List elements (of the pattern you're looking for - or any elements if you don't know what you're looking for)
  2. Find common themes across the elements (similarity between two elements is a lot easier that similarity across a large number of elements)
  3. Find the repeating pattern acorss the common themes.

The technique evolved over a period of time, not so much in fundamental structure (as above) - that hasn't changed much over the years - but in terms of methods for finding those common themes and repeating patterns.

A number of derivative techniques have arisen over time - but they all follow the same basic pattern.

Popular names

Gary and Lynne discovered, fairly early in the piece, that many people had difficulty with both:

  1. "The Fractal Phenomenon" - not everyone knows what fractals are and
  2. "Systemic Thinking" - some people think that it is to do with computers, others confuse it with "Systems Thinking" and "Systematic Thinking" and many people think that it means "to do with systems".

The challenge was to come up with names that ordinary people could understand and use to convey the essence of the ideas - in spite of the ideas themselves being elusive and having a "half-life of one sleep".

They eventually decided to retain the original names for use within academic and practitioner circles but use the following popular names in everyday situations:

  1. The Repeating Patterns Phenomenon for the Fractal Phenomenon and
  2. Pattern Thinking for Systemic Thinking.


Systemic thinking has been applied successfully across a broad range of arenas:

  1. Business (see prodsol.com)
    1. Numerous sectors
    2. Numerous organisation sizes
    3. Numerous functional areas
    4. Numerous situations
  2. Education
    1. Entire eduction system
    2. Schools
    3. Teachers
    4. Pupils
  3. Health
    1. Hospitals
    2. Clinics
    3. Generals practitioners
  4. Government
    1. Politics
    2. Cultural transformation
    3. Central Government
    4. Local Government
    5. Recession response
  5. Sport
    1. Club
    2. Team
    3. Representative Sport
    4. Coaching
    5. Playing
  6. Personal
    1. Relationships
    2. Personal/Professional development
    3. Family
    4. Wealth
    5. Weight-loss

The most powerful application to date has been the Human Condition Problem Pattern and Solution Pattern:

  1. Problem Pattern: Unconscious Incognizance
    1. We don't know what we don't know and
    2. Much of what we do know - or think we know - ain't so
  2. Solution Pattern: Alternative generating and integrating frameworks
    1. Multi-option
    2. Reverse-engineered
    3. Frameworks,
    4. Solutions
    5. Building blocks and
    6. Techniques

Click here to see upcoming developments in Pattern Thinking.

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