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Our Inspiration


Many incredible thinkers and authors influence the field of Systems Thinking, the conceptual basis of our work. This page highlights four authors whose work contributes to the living systems tools used by the White Water Institute in our sessions to assist in organizational planning and learning (interdependence, pattern recognitions, self-organization, and emergence) used in our sessions. These authors and others inspire our work.



Richard Wright wrote an exquisite book called The Organic Machine:  The Remaking of the Columbia River. Discussing natural history and human history, his central theme explores the interrelationship between rivers and humans.

“Like us, rivers work.  They absorb and emit energy; they rearrange the world.” (p.3)

Later in his book he writes,  

“Humans live in the world; they bring their passions as well as their interests to [the river].How we use nature, how we have used and will use the Columbia, are about ways of life, about work, justice and dreams for our children.” (p.112).

Wright, Richard. The Organic Machine:  The Remaking of the Columbia River. Hill and Yang. 1995. Print.


Pattern Recognition

One of our founding board members, Ruth Stiehl, Ed.D, Professor Emeritus, has taught about living systems throughout her career as a professor at Oregon State University and helped define the systems tools we continue to teach.

Key to teaching about systems, Ruth believes, is helping people shift their perspective to look for patterns. From Vicky Schubert’s article in Pegasus Newsletter, Ruth reminds us that:

“When you look at a river, you’re looking at processes. In processes there are patterns that you can learn to observe. We’re terribly deficient in recognizing patterns, because we don’t make the effort to get far enough away from things to see the patterns that exist.”

Ruth continues…

“Patterns of behavior are difficult to alter. Ways of thinking after years of practice are not as flexible as I may wish. I feel supported by systems thinking skills. However, when I’m under stress I fail to remember them, so I need to go and remember what I learned on the river.”

Quoted from Vicky Schubert. River as Teacher: Rafting into an Understanding of Living Systems. Pegasus Communications,  Inc, . Copyright © 2010. Online Newsletter.

You can find more about Ruth Stiehl’s work at



Margaret Wheatley, one of the giants in the field of living systems acknowledges that self-organization has been around a long time, known better in the earlier literature as “the informal organization.”  In Finding Our Way, Wheatley explains that once we began describing “organizations as living systems rather than as machines, self-organization becomes a primary concept, easily visible.” (p.35).

“A few simple connections are sufficient to generate orderly patterns.  Complex behavior originates from simple rules of connection.  Order is not predesigned or engineered from the outside. The system organizes itself.” (p.35)

Wheatley, Margaret. Finding Our Way. Barrett-Koehler: Publisher, 2005. Print.



Emergence occurs through complex dynamics of multiple actions and interactions. Recognizing emergence can be difficult. It requires listening carefully, suspending judgement, and dialogue, to name only a few of the skills required. C. Otto Scharmer—Senior Lecturer at MIT and author of Theory U: Leading from the Future as it Emerges—has extensive experience helping others grasp the presence of emergence. 

“Sensing [or presencing] is the state we experience when we have opened our minds, our hearts, and our intentions…and allows us to connect and move with emerging realities…” (pp. 61-62).

Later in his book, Theory U he writes:

“As you crystallize… core themes, patterns, and puzzles and… deepen your understanding of primary… conditions that structure these patterns of emergence, you pay increasing attention to what is coming in through the back door of your mind. It is at this stage that groups begin to function as an instrument for an emerging future.”  (p.293).

Scharmer, Otto. Theory U:  Leading from the Future as it Emerges. Cambridge, MA. SOL (The Society for Organizational Learning), 2007. Print.


Time spent on the river during White Water Institute solidifies the need for interdependence in our natural and human world. Additionally, rafting a river helps participants experience self-organization, pattern recognition and emergence—valuable concepts and skills taught in our classrooms.

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