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Peter M. Senge

Peter M. Senge

Standing in the Shadows:
Reflections on Ten Years working with Jay W. Forrester

I was in Europe when my wife Diane told me of Jay’s passing three weeks ago. In one sense, I was not surprised. 98 is a very good age for moving on. But, gradually, in the weeks since, I have, taken to thinking a good deal about our time together.

Of course, it is the asymmetry of life that we can do nothing to benefit a person once she or he has passed. But I realized in talking with Drew Jones upon my return that I would like to write a bit about the extraordinary gift of working closely with Jay for a decade – what it was like at the time and a small bit of the bounty of understanding it bequeathed to me.

Much has and will be written about Jay’s life, and I realized in talking with Drew that my long apprenticeship might provide some distinctive perspectives. Feeling like one holding a small offering stone at the base of Mount Rushmore, I hope that my musing may be of some use to those who knew Jay, as well as the great many who have and will benefit from his legacy. And, of course, there is the extra benefit of no one left who can correct my errors…

I first heard Jay speak when he visited my Principles of Systems class my first year as a MIT master’s student, in the fall of 1970. I do not remember much of what he said, which could be attributed to the many years since past but more likely to the coarseness of the listener. In the following two years, I constructed a sort of “Cook’s Tour” in the greater Boston area of all manner of system approaches applied to large scale societal issues – at MIT, Harvard, and Boston University. With a background in engineering control systems, the tour left me more and more convinced that there was nothing quite like system dynamics.

My imagination was captured by the combination of power and breadth. I studied system dynamics analyses of companies, cities, ecosystems, and cell biology, among many. But perhaps even more striking was the elegance and intuitiveness. I gradually realized people could come to understand intuitively the forces driving behavior in truly complex systems. It seemed to me that system dynamics uniquely stood astride the rigor of systems analysis ala engineering and science and the need to engage diverse stakeholders common to many approaches to system change. While the later systems change approaches lacked rigor, the former mostly resulted in technical analyses that remained opaque to the range of people (with very different technical skills) who needed to ultimately think and work together better guided by some semblance of common understanding of complex problems.

All this occurred in the days when “Industrial Dynamics,” what Jay initially called the field, was becoming “System Dynamics,” the term Jay was coming to by the early 1970’s. Jay had just completed work on Urban Dynamics and was starting to work on the model that would become the basis for World Dynamics and later The Limits to Growth.

In the spring of 1972, preparation met opportunity when Jay offered a seminar open to about a dozen students. Looking back, I bow in eternal gratitude at the good fortune for these weekly meetings in his office. As it turned out, it was the last regular semester-long seminar like this that he would ever offer. And it opened doorways that have shaped my life.

As the seminar was ending one day in May, he asked me what my plans were. I said I had not made any plans regarding further study or employment, but that I had thought a lot about what I would like to do next. He listened and then offered to hire me to do just that. As it turned out, it was the closest I ever came to a job interview. It also taught me how Jay approached planning and hiring – he believed in hiring people with promise and giving them space.

A week or so later, he showed me where my desk was and said I should come and see him some time in a month or so to let him know how I was doing. That was the extent of my supervision.

Amidst moments of periodic panic that I had no idea what I was doing, I also developed the plan I had in mind originally – to do something that would clarify how system dynamics related to other approaches to modeling complex systems. What ensued was a remarkable year-long series of small seminars with people we invited to talk about how they thought about and built models, assessed validity, and guided application. This included thought leaders from management science, the social sciences – even from physics. We did not limit ourselves to any field since model building occurs in all branches of science – indeed is a defining aspect of what constitutes science.

It was a wonderful year that became two. As the process continued, I visited with Jay often. Whenever we could, we sat outside his and Susan’s home in Concord under a large tree. We talked about all manner of things, usually with enough of Susan’s cookies to sustain deep inquiry.

Fellowship and nonlinearity suffused our conversations. He told me how he had gotten the idea for coincident current core memory, the invention that opened the door for general purpose digital computing (and for which MIT, and Jay, eventually collected the largest patent settlement ever), reading an IEEE (Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineering) article about hysteresis, the nonlinear way an electric charge builds and saturates. In another, he pointed out that the world of linear analysis – the world I, and all good engineers, had grown up with – was like living inside a tent. “Everyone once in a while, someone pokes a hole in the tent and gazes at the non-linear world outside. They then become terrified and quickly go back inside.” I still think periodically about that terror. And wonder how much it sits behind the fears so evident in today’s world.

In one of these conversations, I asked him if he thought I should continue on to get a doctorate. His response did not really surprise me, “I have always thought that getting a PhD was for people of lesser abilities.” As I knew, he had come to MIT during the years of World War II and such matters of degrees and the like were of small consequence compared to the challenges confronting the world, which, as it turned out, he had no small impact on. Jay’s work to develop operational radar had a singular effect in turning the tide of the Pacific theatre in favor of the Americans, whose Navy had previously suffered under the relentless attack of the Japanese air strikes.

But his advice not withstanding, within a year I had decided to enroll in the doctoral program when I realized one morning while shaving that I could simply register in the program and pursue the research plan I had already made for the next few years and – and get a PhD in the process, which journey began in the fall of 1975. I was again not really surprised when Jay said he liked the idea, his own previous contrary advice not withstanding. After all, I had heard him say many times to never be surprised if his thinking changed, even when he had seemed quite set on one way of seeing things. Though I can never recall his citing it, few could rival Jay in abiding by Emerson’s famous dictum, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.”

Within a year or so, I was part of the National Economic Model team that became the focus of Jay’s work for a decade, joining a core group of good fiends, Nathaniel Mass, Gil Low, and Dale Runge. Talking with Drew, I realized that I am the only person now still alive from that team. Gil and Dale both tragically died during the project. Nat sadly passed away over a decade ago, at far too young an age.

I cannot say that all the work was fun. Indeed, the most memorable, and undoubtedly important, times were pretty painful. Starting full time on the team after completing my doctorate in the spring 1978, I worked on a combination of model development and testing, and writing. To my surprise, the later proved the greatest challenge.

Once Jay and I were drafting together the chapter introducing the monetary features of the model and the approach to inflation. Well, “drafting together” might be a bit of an exaggeration. I drafted and Jay corrected. Indeed, I can vividly still see printed drafts returned from Jay covered with what seemed more red than black. These bloody battlegrounds were the site for my gradually realizing that I had escaped almost twenty years of formal education without ever actually learning to write. Of course, I didn’t know this. I actually like my writing. But, then Jay would show me the topic sentence for the paragraph tucked away in the middle of the fourth sentence. Or worse, point out that no topic sentence could be found no matter how much one looked.

Given how closely together our self-expression and sense of identity tend to reside, it is no wonder that my confidence found itself reaching new lows in this whole process. Jay must have been at least a bit concerned about how I was doing. For, one day, in an unusual display of compassion, he said to me in the midst of an especially down moment, “I too once had to go through this process. My experience is that you only have to do it once.” On that inspiring note, I went back to working on my thirteenth draft of the chapter.

Indeed, Jay was right. After a few calendar months, which felt more like a few years, my writing became decidedly clearer. Topic sentences stood out. Sentence structures became shorter. Paragraph structures transformed from circuitous meander to clear progressions. Passive verbs (often used in tenses that might never even have existed) gave way to active ones. And the red ink thinned to where the underlying text became once again legible.

I cannot say I ever remember Jay complementing me on the progress. Indeed, we had a saying among the team: “He never tells you that you are right. He just stops telling you the ways you are wrong.”

But, I knew I was learning to write. Just one small debt I owe to my mentor – one of many.

Many of these lessons I learned more from how Jay was than from anything he set out to teach me explicitly. Many years later, when my own work evolved to increasing attention on developing personal and shared vision, I knew from whom I had learned this. Indeed, I never met someone so able to clarify a truly aspirational aim and pursue it relentlessly.

Sitting behind the capacity to envision digital computation, invent system dynamics, and build the first endogenous computer simulation model of how the industrial-age paradigm of growth was shaping the world’s deepest problems, were two personality threads that seemed to entwine strangely in the system called Jay. The first was remarkable intuition and confidence to follow a path that seemed right to him. The second was almost complete indifference to what others thought of his efforts. While this confluence probably characterizes many creative personalities, but, in distorted form, it also defines fanatics, people entirely convinced they have the answer and closed to all others.

A visitor to our group one day offered a key to differentiating the two. After spending an afternoon with Jay, this gentleman, also a unique thinker and innovator, remarked later that night, “I have never met a person so able to not know.” He continued, “I know much of what I shared with Jay he did not understand, yet this did not seem to bother him in the least. It was like he could just sit and hold each idea, like a rock. Most people would have become uneasy or felt compelled to pretend that they understood or agreed.” Indeed, I believe this is especially true of people, like a great many academics, who have a lot invested in all that they know.

When this man said this, it immediately took me back to something that had struck me repeatedly as a student around Jay. He was the first professor I had ever met who regularly prefaced his comments about a subject with a comment like, “I do not really understand this very deeply…” As I heard this again and again from him, it gradually occurred to me how rarely I heard it from others at the university. Indeed, Jay had a remarkable gift for simply sitting with intellectual water and oil – conflicting bits of data, different interpretations of data, different people’s views about a complex subject – and doing absolutely nothing to resolve the conflicts. Holding rocks…

It was several years later that this subtle capacity was brought into sharp relief when, while Diane and I were hiking in the Alps, we met an older Hungarian couple and hiked for a while together. Eventually, we learned that, as a young physicist, he had been at Niels Bohr’s famous physics institute in Copenhagen. While we walked on, he shocked us with the comment that, “Many of the young physicists around Bohr actually were not entirely convinced how bright he was.” He often didn’t seem to have much energy to engage in the intellectual duals that define a high-powered academic environment. Although few said it out loud, many of these young superstars of the emerging quantum revolution thought Bohr a bit slow. As we walked on, he then said one thing that I have never forgotten, “But when he understood he really understood.”

Holding rocks. Understanding that emerges in its own time, or fails to do so – two subtle capacities that were so deep within Jay that he may have just taken them for granted.

Eventually, my own path diverged from what I am suspect he might have preferred, and we saw each other less regularly, a natural process that occurs for mentees and mentors. Yet, looking back now, the paths seem less separate, more like two ways up the same mountain – at least to my reckoning. Cultivating vision. The importance of mental models – we actually took this term from Jay’s Industrial Dynamics, published in 1959. Seeing systemic causes of problems and new systemic structures needed for new possibilities. None of these ideas could have possibly had the resonance they eventually had within me without the gift of this time being so close.

In the end, one only hopes to have been a good student. I know he was a great teacher.

Peter M. Senge
Cambridge, Massachusetts
December 2016