Systems Intelligence: Getting to Super-Productivity via not “Holding Back”

The MAPP program is a fulltime program – but combines onsite classes with long-distance learning periods. Part of the distance learning comprises a lot of reading (Who would have thought of that…) and writing essays about a wide array of positive psychology topics. I´ve decided to post some of those essays here on Mappalicious. Surely, they´re not the be-all and end-all of academic writing. But then again, it would also be a pity to bury them in the depths of my laptop…

Esa Saarinen´s work on individual and organizational well-being is based on a Systems Intelligence approach (Saarinen & Hämäläinen, 2004; Hämäläinen & Saarinen, 2007; Saarinen, 2013). Systems intelligence, in turn, is based on systems theory/systems thinking (Von Bertalanffy, 1968) which was introduced into organization and management sciences by researchers such as Russell Ackoff (1972; 2006). Systems Intelligence is defined as “intelligent behaviour in the context of complex systems involving interaction and feedback. A subject acting with Systems Intelligence engages successfully and productively with the holistic feedback mechanisms of her environment. She perceives herself as part of a whole, the influence of the whole upon herself as well as her own influence upon the whole” (Hämäläinen & Saarinen, 2004, p. 9). Pertaining to underlying idea of man, the approach is grounded in “a deep belief in the human potential. In its positive overtones and strive towards flourishment […] Systems Intelligence runs parallel to Positive Organizational Scholarship and to Positive Psychology” (Hämäläinen & Saarinen, 2007, p. 4).

What fascinates me most about Saarinen´s work is the concept of “holding back”. On an abstract level, this describes a situation where people choose an “inferior non-cooperative equilibrium solution even if a jointly dominating solution would also be available by cooperation” (Saarinen & Hämäläinen, 2004, p. 35). For instance, a boy and a girl both hesitate to say “I love you” out of fear that the statement could remain unrequited. In this spirit, Hämäläinen and Saarinen (2008, p. 824) describe “‘Systems of Holding Back’, and of ‘Systems of Holding Back in Return and in Advance’. The subject holds back what would benefit the other because the other first holds back from me what would benefit me.”

While I can obviously relate to this concept by way of personal experience, I believe it also markedly extends my understanding of a psychological phenomenon I investigated a while ago (Rose, 2010; 2012). I administered a questionnaire to a German sample of more than thousand people and asked them (among other things) to rate themselves on the following items pertaining to their overarching life goals:

  • Sometimes I doubt that I am allowed to reach my goals.
  • Sometimes I believe that I do not deserve to reach my goals.
  • Sometimes I believe that somehow I am not permitted to reach my goals.

Participants that answered in the affirmative displayed a significantly lower level of satisfaction with life (r = -.48) as measured by the scale of Diener, Emmons, Larsen, and Griffin (1985). Now the question arises: Why should somebody think (or feel) that she is not allowed to reach her goals? Where should this permission come from? Who could issue such a permission – or should have given it in the first place? At the present moment, my intuition is that this could be a structure of anticipatory (internalized) form of holding back: A person expects to be exposed to “holding back” via an external agency and therefore decides to evade the associated “pain” by “not trying” in the first place.

At the other end of the continuum, Hämäläinen and Saarinen (2007, p. 27) believe that “to the extent there are microbehaviours of holding back and a phenomenon of holding back giving rise to Systems of Holding Back, there is also the opposite possibility.” If there are (micro-)behaviours of holding back, there should also be occasions of uplift and elevation.

Bigger PictureSuper-Productivity

One important facet of Systems Intelligence is the investigation and description of a phenomenon characterized as “Super-Productivity” (Saarinen & Hämäläinen, 2004) – which is a result/by-product of systems’ propensity for synergy and emergence. This concept signifies an optimal state of system functioning which in everyday speech is oftentimes described by the saying “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts”. It could be likened to Csíkszentmihályi´s concept of Flow (1990) – but where Csíkszentmihályi´s notion is concerned with an intra-individual phenomenon, Saarinen and his co-author refer to an inter-individual manifestation, a flow between different elements of a system, for instance, the members of a management team or an orchestra.

I am very intrigued by this conception since I have experienced it numerous times in my career as a corporate manager. It rarely happens,* but when it does, the results can be spectacular. By way of example, upon my initiative, Bertelsmann has entered in a joint recruiting project by the name of “Gap Year” ( with the German branch of McKinsey, the headquarters of German financial/insurance giant Allianz, and Germany´s leading FMCG producer, Henkel. In spite of being opponents in the so-called “War for Talent” (Chambers, Foulon, Handfield-Jones, Hanklin, & Michaels, 1998), we all swallowed our (corporate) pride and created a cooperative program for recent bachelor graduates. Candidates have to apply only once, and if successful, they enter a 12-months schedule where they complete first-rate internships with three out of the four partner companies. The program has been immensely successful. Not only does it attract the best candidates the market has to offer, it was also awarded several times, and featured in more that 30 (mostly top-tier) articles in the German business press.

In the beginning, there were a lot of doubts about the feasibility and practicality of this project. All parties had to overcome the inherent “free-market egotism” and tune into the needs and requirements of the partner companies. Looking back, I believe that a high amount of interpersonal trust was the key ingredient that has led to successful execution. It would have been easy to “hold back”, to sabotage, or pull out of the project completely. But we decided to see it through – and we were richly rewarded.

* But in real life, the opposite seems to be true. At the lower end of the continuum, there has to be a kind of hypo-productivity: “Most corporations and business schools are less than the sum of their parts.” (Ackoff, 2007, p. 127).


Ackoff R. L., Emery F. E. (1972). On purposeful systems. Chicago, Il: Aldine-Atherton.

Ackoff, R. L. (2006). Why few organizations adopt systems thinking. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 23(5), 705-708.

Ackoff, R. L., Addison, H. J., & Bibb, S. (2007). Management F/Laws. Axminster, UK: Triarchy Press.

Chambers, E. G., Foulon, M., Handfield-Jones, H., Hanklin, S. M., & Michaels, E. G. (1998). The war for talent. McKinsey Quarterly, 3, 44-57.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper-Perennial.

Diener, E., Emmons, R. A., Larsen, R. J., & Griffin, S. (1985). The satisfaction with life scale. Journal of Personality Assessment, 49(1), 71-75.

Hämäläinen R.P. & E. Saarinen (2007). System intelligent leadership, in R.P. Hämäläinen & E. Saarinen (Eds.), System intelligence in leadership and everyday life (pp. 3-38). Helsinki: Systems Analysis Laboratory, Helsinki University of Technology.

Hämäläinen, R. P., & Saarinen, E. (2008). Systems intelligence – the way forward? A note on Ackoff’s ‘why few organizations adopt systems thinking’. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 25(6), 821-825.

Rose, N. (2010). Lizenz zur Zufriedenheit [License for Satisfaction]. Kommunikation & Seminar, 5, 12-15.

Rose, N. (2012). Lizenz zur Zufriedenheit [License for Satisfaction]. Paderborn, Germany: Junfermann.

Saarinen, E. (2013). The Paphos seminar. Elevated reflections on life as good work. GoodWork Project Report Series, 80, Harvard University.

Saarinen E., & Hämäläinen, R. P. (2004). Systems intelligence: Connecting engineering thinking with human sensitivity, in R. P. Hämäläinen & E. Saarinen (Eds.), Systems intelligence: Discovering a hidden competence in human action and organisational life (pp. 9-37). Helsinki: Systems Analysis Laboratory, Helsinki University of Technology.

Von Bertalanffy, L. (1968). General system theory: Foundations, development, applications. New York, NY: George Braziller.

One thought on “Systems Intelligence: Getting to Super-Productivity via not “Holding Back”

  1. Thanks for underlying the link between systems thinking and PP! This issue seems crucial to me, in human and social sciences and day to day life. My motto? Observe from Sirius (or any other star), but talk heart to heart!


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