OK, WE MIGHT AS WELL START WITH Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher. Don’t worry if the name doesn’t ring a bell.
The claim to fame of this 19th-century German philosopher was a somewhat obscure method of interpreting the world known as the hermeneutic circle. The gist was that you can’t know the parts of something unless you know the whole. But you can’t know the whole unless you understand the parts.
Yes, it’s a head-scratcher. But here’s a contemporary example. You’re watching a movie. Partway through, you know some of the characters and some of the plot line, but you’re lost. It’s only after it finishes that it all begins to make sense. You watch it again, noticing this time the little clues and side plots that will eventually marry together. You say, Now I see it. I see the whole.
That’s systems thinking, said Willy Donaldson ’74, who has devoted almost his entire working life to getting himself and others to see the larger picture.
Across more than 35 years as a board member, president, and chief executive at eight different companies, as well as more than three decades of teaching, Donaldson has bucked the conventional corporate ideology and worked to avoid the pitfalls of myopic management.
“Systems thinking forces you to step back and get out of your silos, get out of your divisions, and think about things holistically,” Donaldson says. “Then dive in and look at the parts. Then step back again.”
As an associate professor and the director of the Biotechnology and Management Program at Christopher Newport University, in Newport News, Virginia, Donaldson has tried to get students to see beyond our artificial boundaries. It doesn’t matter what they’re studying.
“The world, in most contexts, is too large and complex for anybody to grasp,” Donaldson says. “So we parse them into different pieces. For a long time, the idea was that if I just optimize the pieces, they’ll come back together and work perfectly. But that’s not the way systems work.”
Donaldson was introduced to the philosophy by his father when he was a student at Taft. Donaldson’s dad, Coleman, a renowned aeronautical engineer, gave him early texts from systems thinkers like Ludwig von Bertalanffy and Russell Ackoff. And when he wasn’t on the ice playing hockey or on the lacrosse field, he was reading.
Donaldson ended up studying engineering at North Carolina State, but he got to apply his management knowledge early on. At age 26, he took over two businesses run by his father after his father became ill. He clearly had a knack for it. He later joined a tiny video projection company, nVIEW Corp., in 1986, and took it public in five years with $60 million in sales.
From there, he became a specialist in strategic management, leading companies involved in everything from naval ships to energy harvesting to conveyor belts.
At each stop, Donaldson would establish a Corporate University, where employees could observe the various departments in the company. The goal was to help them better understand how they fit into the whole.
“Gallup did a poll and found that upwards of 80 percent of people said that they were disengaged or actively disengaged at work,” Donaldson says. “They don’t know the system. You bring somebody in, you put them in the accounting department, and that’s all they ever see.”
His 2017 book, Simple Complexity, synthesized those larger theoretical concepts with his real-world experiences. It had at least one famous reader: New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick. Donaldson sent a letter praising him for how seamlessly he managed to mix controversial free agents into the roster. Without knowing it, Belichick was a systems thinker. In a note back, the coach agreed.
Donaldson has a new book, Estimated Time of Departure, about his experiences with grief and talking his parents through their end-of-life periods. He wrote most of it during the past year, when COVID-19 shut down most of the world.
There’s a lesson to be learned from the pandemic, too.
“Coronavirus is a system,” Donaldson says. “It’s a series of proteins and RNA strands that interact with a purpose, infecting hosts and replicating. And it doesn’t care about any of the fictitious borders we care about.”
—Zach Schonbrun ’05