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Sunbeams and Systems Thinking - why St. Brigid is the business.

Updated: Feb 8, 2021

10 Good reasons why Brigid should be our patron saint of systems thinkers.

Systems thinking is very useful at times of uncertainty. It assumes change and gets to the root of complexity often finding solutions that are counterintuitive. Indeed, I was surprised to discover that St. Brigid, a woman born over 1,500 years ago was an early but able practitioner. Living close to nature (and associated with trees, berries and beasts), Brigid well-understood how circular, finely tuned and integrated life is. In fact, she leveraged this to improve the world around her.

1. Brigid as designer

While born into a chieftain family, Brigid came into the world a slave. Her integrity shone through from the start and she personified the systems principle - “from small things, big things grow”. Regardless of size, no problem fazed her. To avoid an unwanted marriage, for example, Brigid gifted her fathers bejewelled sword to a peasant. In this single gesture, she won both personal freedom and her desired future. With complex and vulnerable systems, this clarity of intent is key.

2. Brigid, the value-add negotiator

Brigid was confident in her delivery and deal-making. A natural Plan-Do-Check-Act exponent, she observed and listened carefully. For example, when seeking convent land, she appealed to the King of Leinster who wasn’t keen to donate. Brigid managed to hear what he didn’t say – an outright “No” - and persevered until he agreed “as much land as would fit beneath her cloak”. It seems Brigid applied the “Multiplier effect” too, getting far greater acreage than the King bargained for. Such inversion techniques prove handy for systems thinkers to this day.

3. Brigid, the risk-based inventor

Systems theory understands that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. St. Brigid’s’ symbol is a cross - an interwoven lattice often combining multiple materials such as rushes, reeds, twine or hay etc). The rushes used are pulled rather than cut. This ‘do no harm’ policy works well in the case of complex systems like the dairies where Brigid worked. The word ‘vaccine’ actually derives from ‘vacca’ for cow. In fact, vaccine manufacturing uses ‘a worst case’ rule to minimise unintended harm.

4. Brigid, the integrator

Good systems designers often achieve multiple functions in one task and are open to iteration once thresholds are met. In the act of Brigid improvising her cross (from reeds on the ground), her story both quietened the dying Chieftain and converted him to Christianity.

However, we do our best systems thinking together and in mixed gender groups. Brigid’s monasteries were open to both men and women. Even her famous cross, like the best human-designed systems, was multi-functional and -representational. It serves as both a universal symbol of faith and a specific purpose in protecting our homes against fire (i.e. a proactive C.A.P.A. – Corrective Action Preventative Action). The cross is also a synthesis as the Christian cross is superimposed on a once 3-legged Celtic image of the sun.

5. Brigid, a relationship guru

Brigid intuited the flow of relationships well, often predicted accurately how they might evolve. Although faced with obstacles and scant resources, she blamed no one and invested in, rather than abandoning, the “negative people” and downtrodden of the time. By assuming in them a positive intent, her goodwill was time and time again reciprocated. A system thinker appreciates that even when inputs remain unchanged, relationships between them inevitably evolve.

6. Brigid, the innovator

Brigid’s closely knit network welcomed new people and ideas in. Her followers’ minds were far from cloistered. In fact, convents were like cottage industries running small experiments constantly e.g. in food production and spread new creations – like their jam – generously. All systems can benefit from these short and fast feedback loops.

Brigid’s popularity grew, year on year. The renowned hospitality of her convents was matched by their deep learning culture. If she was alive today, the algorithms for running her fully automated milking parlours would probably be in high demand. The best teachers and leaders have a talent for making everyone around them smarter.

7. Brigid, an early "Quality Manager"

Brigid’s first convent was sheltered under a giant oak tree (at ‘Cil Dara’) and life was in tune with nature and its cycles. Brigid appreciated the importance of balance and took great personal care to direct her monastery’s foundations. She was hands-on and both worked on and in her systems. Roles were clearly defined, and the rhythm of monastic activities carried out in a disciplined manner. Self-reflection and meditation were central as were art and metalwork; both executed to very high standards. Her ‘Quality by Design’ approach paid off with Kildare later becoming a Cathedral town.

8. Brigid, the Optimiser

Brigid held pre-Deming ‘profound wisdom’. Her convents were hives of productivity and knowledge hubs while she travelled through counties and across provinces to spread best practice. A ‘centre of excellence’ for the arts was even established. Like all systems thinkers, Bridget was herself an advocate of lifelong learning. She did, however, once fall asleep at a lecture but at least it was given by the top man. St. Patrick “forgave her with a smile” apparently.

9. Brigid as a Generative Force

All self-organising systems are inherently adaptive yet can be easily corrupted. They need both maintenance and sometime recalibration. Fixing systemic issues entails courage and a level of judicious risk-taking. We must pick both the time, the place and the method carefully. Brigid focussed her efforts where she had the deepest familiarity. Although a free woman, she voluntarily returned to slavery to serve as companion to her mother. This calculated risk proved justified when her mother was eventually released, and the chain of contamination broken.

10. Brigid, the Simplifier

It often takes both sophisticated techniques and complex agents (like St. Brigid) to achieve effective change. Yet the best solutions are generated by systems thinking and can be the simplest ones. Most importantly, however, they are holistic and balance dynamics, processes and context. Not surprisingly, prayers to St. Brigid often seek her help to “grow each day into greater wholeness in mind, body and spirit”.

St. Brigid was famed as a healer. This February 1st - lets honour her and those who still use her symbol as their organisational logo - the nurses of Ireland (as members of “An Bord Altranas”). Our prayers are with them and all our front-line workers.

This original artwork is by Limerick-based artist, Hugh McMahon - Think4Purpose provide performance coaching to STEM professionals. We deliver interactive workshops in Critical, Creative and Strategic Thinking that invigorate teams and prepare them for continuous change and uncertainty.


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