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Moving Beyond the Threshold of System Dynamics: Thoughts for New Practitioners

I’ve heard students and colleagues say that learning system dynamics transformed their thinking–it gave them ways to understand complex problems in their field from a fresh perspective. “I can’t think any other way,” they’ll say. Practices like system dynamics are considered a threshold concept. Threshold concepts have been described by Meyers and Land (2008) as:

  • Transformative – it changes the way a student views a discipline. 
  • Troublesome – especially when the concepts are counter-intuitive or conceptually difficult. 
  • Irreversible – difficult to unlearn. 
  • Integrative – once learned, bring together previously unrelated concepts.
  • Reconstituted – shifts learner subjectivity in oscillations/wrestling with conceptual domains, often depicted by messy journeys back and forth and across conceptual terrains (Cousin, 2006). 
  • Liminal – leaves the learner in a suspended state of partial understanding (“stuck places”), in which understanding is based on mimicry or a lack of authenticity–it’s an uncomfortable shift that invokes questions of identity and or paradoxically a sense of loss. Similar to adolescence, one does not feel that they have arrived–not yet adults and no longer children. 

Those of us who have started this journey know there is no end to learning and a sense of imposter syndrome that comes with trying. It’s not something you simply do over the summer and get your stamp of authenticity. Becoming a system dynamicist is a commitment to lifelong learning. Practicing. Feeling inadequate. The skill decay rate is high. And yet, the insights are transformational.

To those of us who are starting this journey of learning, we must wrestle with this liminality. I suspect that few of us feel that we have “made it” to the end of system dynamics learning. When compared to some well-established fields, such as physics or biology, ours is relatively new–a mere child in the many disciplines of methodological inquiry. There are many questions to be pursued and innovations to be encountered. It is intimidating to put oneself out there to grow, so with that, I offer some ideas that I’ve done or seen others do in the field:

  1. Seek mentorship. Find people whose work you admire, read their papers/projects and talk to them frequently. Ask questions. Take notes.
  2. Attend SD conferences. The best way to learn a new language is to be immersed in the field and everyday language: the annual conference. There are few places where you don’t have to explain causal loop diagrams or feedback (not in reference to a suggestion) to have a deeper conversation on practice.
  3. Find peers and ask “dumb” questions together. At my first SD conference, peers sat me down to conduct a gentle intervention prior to my first presentation. They said, “Saras, it’s System. Dynamics. Not SystemS Dynamics. One system. Many dynamics.” Novice crisis averted (somewhat). Thanks, Jill and Mary Jo!
  4. Read the classics and model them. The System Dynamics Review is a great place to start going deeper. Additionally, reading seminal texts and rebuilding models can help hone your skills. It’s especially illuminating to read “conversations” between folks in the field to understand what debates have persisted over time. 

Are you at the threshold? Reach out and lean into this space of learning. For more seasoned practitioners, what worked for you? Use the comments below to share your wisdom!