Systems thinking is a model of thinking where you perceive a situation as a system. This allows you to understand the situation on a deeper level and it widens up your options for making improvements. The model of thinking draws upon a range of system concepts and laws, such as: emergence, feedback, self-organisation (but to name a few). There are a number of approaches you can use to help you apply systems thinking, such as soft systems methodology, systems dynamics, viable system modelling, strategic options development analysis and many others. The approaches consist of methods and models. So, you are not alone with just your model of thinking. You have a suite of concepts, methods and models to help you applying the thinking to your problematic situation.
How is systems thinking different to how I think now?
Traditional thinking tends to focus on separate things, rather than the interconnections between them. It often assumes there is a single cause of a problem. There is a focus on outcomes and measurements. It can be very dogmatic and reductionist and often has a focus on criticalness and blame. I wonder how many times you have heard staff being blamed for the problems of an organisation? Or been blamed yourself? That is our traditional model of thinking kicking in. Blame is a very easy trap to fall into; we are all guilty of it at times. The trick is to be aware of it and challenge it. Systems thinking can help you to do that. It helps you focus on the bigger picture (like taking a helicopter view) and the interconnections involved. It embraces the uncertainty and complexity in the situation you are faced with, so you no longer find it scary and unmanageable. Systems thinking supports you in appreciating multiple perspectives and even exposes things like power relationships.
But, what does all this mean to me?
One idea behind systems thinking is to help you avoid putting in place a “quick fix” here that causes a problem somewhere else. It’s a bit like standing on a bump in a carpet, only for it to emerge somewhere else. We do this because it is easy. But, it is often not a sustainable fix. To get a more sustainable improvement we need to jump right into the complexity around us and get a good understanding of it. Systems thinking can help you do that and support you in making better decisions. To some extent, it can help you avoid a lot of unintended consequences of actions, although it will not eliminate them altogether.
What kind of themes come up in systems thinking?
Systems thinking is so broad, it encompasses many themes. It can be traced back as far as Aristotle’s Metaphysica. It is a holistic way of thinking that is advocated by many Eastern philosophies (particularly those with a belief that human beings are only one part of the universe).
What kind of situations can I use systems thinking for?
You can use systems thinking for a huge range of things from diagnosing weaknesses in a system to redesigning services to designing organisations and services from scratch to forming strategy and much more. I even use systems thinking to form my own personal development plans.
Are there any barriers to systems thinking?
Yes, there are. To engage in a different model of thinking can be quite difficult at first. It’s a bit like crossing your arms. If asked to do this you will automatically do it in a way that is comfortable to you. But, if asked to cross your arms the other way it can feel quite awkward. Your brain feels this same kind of awkwardness when you try to engage in a different type of thinking.
Systems thinking can be quite counter-intuitive, so you need a certain degree of humility and a willingness to ask questions. Although that sounds easy, our traditional thinking can often prevent us from asking questions, for fear of looking stupid. You also need to accept that the way you have done things in the past might not be the best way to do them in future. It can feel like you are admitting you were wrong in the past. This is not the case, though. You have just shown enough professionalism to question yourself and find better ways. You need to know its ok to change your mind and evolve. Managers are traditionally expected to come up with all of the answers. Systems thinking does not start with a solution. It starts with the phrase “I don’t know until I study the system”. This is not usually a trait that managers are respected for having or rewarded for, so you need to be quite brave.
Most of our organisations nowadays are bureaucratic and rely heavily upon project management. Both of these are classic barriers to systems thinking. Bureaucracy can hinder the process and project management is reductionist, the opposite of systems thinking.
The concepts and terminology used in systems thinking can be difficult to understand. Words sometimes mean something different when used in relation to systems thinking. For example, when we talk about a “mess” we do not mean a living room floor littered with children’s toys and crushed biscuits. We mean a situation where there are unknown goals, priorities are uncertain, the problem is difficult to explain, the situation affects many people and there are multiple possible trajectories.
And, finally, by its very nature, it crosses disciplinary boundaries. Many people can find this quite challenging.
So, how can I find out more about systems thinking?
A number of universities now incorporate systems thinking into some of their courses. There are also a number of consultancy firms which offer training in systems thinking. However, I studied systems thinking with the Open University and found their courses excellent.
You can find a free taster at the Open University Open Learn platform here: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/science-maths-technology/computing-and-ict/systems-computer/systems-thinking-and-practice/content-section-0
This is an excellent Youtube video about systems thinking: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OqEeIG8aPPk