Systems Thinking

To give context to the approach I take, on this page, I have outlined some common questions about systems thinking.

What is Systems thinking?

Systems thinking is a way of thinking about a situation, using the concept of a system. In this case, a system is defined as a learning device to engage with and understand complex situations. Systems thinking can help you engage with a range of perspectives, understand the inter-relationships in a situation and have conversations about boundary judgements that the people in the situation might be implicitly or explicitly making. It can enable you to get a better grasp of why things work like they do and why you keep getting the outcomes you get.

What is a systems practitioner?

A systems practitioner will not just look at ‘things’ in a situation, but at the interactions between things and what happens as a result of those interactions. Rather than analysing parts, a systems practitioner gains a greater understanding of the elements and dynamics of a situation. This enables a deeper exploration into what obstructs, disrupts, delays, diverts or supports and encourages efforts to make change.

A systems practitioner might explore purpose and identity, interconnections and interdependencies. They might focus on perception, projection, framing and bias, behaviours, assumptions and communication. They might look at interactions, influences and relationships. A systems practitioner will explore how people in a situation collaborate and reciprocate. They are able to explore at both a micro and macro level to gain an understanding of both the situation and the context in which the situation is embedded. This helps the practitioner to understand why a situation and the people in it are or are not able to adapt to their complex, changing environment.

Applying systems thinking

Systems thinking gives a range of approaches/ models/ methods/ concepts and ideas that help you quickly and easily understand the context of a situation.

How is systems thinking different?

Traditional Western thinking tends to encourage us to focus on separate things, rather than the interconnections between them and what those interconnections produce. 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? That is our traditional Western model of thinking kicking in. The trick is to be aware of it and challenge it, where appropriate. This is what systems thinking helps us to do.

What kind of situations can I use systems thinking for?

You can use systems thinking in any kind of situation. It is particularly suited to complex situations. It can be used to diagnose weaknesses in an organisation, redesign services, design organisations and services from scratch, form strategy, make change, undertake evaluation, explore across organisational boundaries and support efforts to create systems change. I even use systems thinking to form my own personal development plans.

How does a systems thinker go about their work?

There are many academic responses to this and systems practitioners (and others) can spend an inordinate amount of time debating the answer. Whilst this might be helpful to the academic advancement of systems thinking, it does not really help people in organisations who just want to know, ‘If you come and work with me, what will you do and how will it help me?’

It would be impossible to answer this question on behalf of all systems practitioners. However, I can tell you some of what I do in my work and what I might focus on (which will invariably change depending upon the context of the situation).

Look at the bigger picture

I do not just look at one small area of a situation. I zoom out and look at a problematic situation and the context in which it sits. I consider how the situation and the context impact one another now and/or how they might impact one another in the future.

See ‘systems’

I look at things using the concept of a system. This means that I do not jump to blaming staff for the problematic situation. Nor do I jump straight to reorganising, restructuring, outsourcing etc. Issues in problematic situations are often systemic and I seek to understand why they are happening before making any kind of recommendations or changes. This does not mean taking a long time, either. My approaches can help me make recommendations or changes very quickly sometimes.

Go beyond seeing ‘problems’

In complex situations there is no problem/ solution per se. There is only an improvement from where you are now. Yes, in improving the situation you may solve some kind of problem along the way, but I look at how I can help you to be adaptive to your complex environment, to support your sustainability in the longer term.

Respect different views and perspectives

I use a number of techniques (for example, diagramming) to work with different perspectives in a non-threatening way. The diagrams might include visual metaphors that allow feelings to be displayed without entering into a “he said, she said” scenario. They are extremely powerful and can often reveal things that, until the point of drawing the diagram, have remained hidden.

Allow time to accommodate conflicting interests

In my experience, people hate feeling that their interest in a situation is not seen as valuable as someone else’s interest. Just knowing that the person working with you and the other parties understand your point of view helps to dissolve barriers.

Explore organisational arrangements and governance

This is done via systems modelling. I use a very powerful diagnostic approach to explore your situation and work out why things may not be working quite as you want them to be.

Use tried and tested systems thinking ‘tools’ and ways of thinking

I used a variety of approaches that have sound theory behind them and I have, at some time, ‘tested them out’. I do try new things also, to ensure that my approaches keep developing and my thinking is fresh.

Encourage being adaptive to the complex environment

I look to see what makes your system breathe, what makes its heart beat, what conditions have to exist to enable it to live, what makes it die. I look at how your system interacts with the environment around it. I look at what interdependencies exist, or do not exist but should or could. I look for the drivers of your complexity and I look for the energy levels in your system – are people and processes energised, frantic? Are they stressed, fearful or in despair? Or are they asleep, calm, laid back with not a care in the world? I don’t just consider, ‘What is this thing?’ I consider, ‘What does it do?’

Support collective decision making

Not all decisions can be made collectively, but I do try to avoid top down dictates. I believe in the expertise that exists in situations, which can often remain ‘hidden’. I like to tap into that hidden expertise and make sure it is utilised and people are recognised for it.

Share whatever I can to help you learn

I do not believe in keeping my ways of working to myself. When I work with you I put as much effort into sharing as I do into doing any other aspect of the work. The more systems and complexity thinking I can ‘infect’ you with the better. I try not to use technical language and complex ways of describing things. I try and keep it as simple as possible so that you can engage with the learning yourself and pass it on to others.

Are there any barriers to Systems thinking?

To engage in a different way of thinking can be difficult. As such, it can feel awkward. There is often an element of ‘trusting the process’ required, before the power of systems thinking is revealed to you.

Systems thinking can often feel counter-intuitive, so you need a certain degree of humility and a willingness to ask questions. Although that sounds easy, our traditional western thinking can often prevent us from asking questions, for fear of looking stupid or uninformed. This can be a barrier to the learning that systems thinking can bring.

There is also an element of accepting that how you might have done things in the past might not be the best way to do them now. This may mean undoing previous decisions you have made. This is not something that we traditionally find easy in our working environments and can prevent people from realising the benefits that systems thinking can bring.

Most of our organisations nowadays are bureaucratic and rely heavily upon project management. Both a dominant hierarchy with little autonomy and a project management approach are classic barriers to systems thinking. Bureaucracy can hinder the process and project management does not often consider systems thinking, even though it could.

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 ways forward.

One of the biggest barriers to systems thinking that I have experienced is power. In particular, power cliques who band together to positively block change. They sometimes even go as far as deliberate sabotage. They can be particularly challenged by ethical systems practices, which may encourage the break up of their power base.

Systems thinking can get muddled with the ‘trendy’ approaches used by consulting organisations, who often have little experiential background and/or academic knowledge of systems thinking. This can lead to poor experiences, which encourage people in situations to turn away from systems thinking, believing it not to be as powerful as it is.

And, finally, by its very nature, systems thinking often crosses organisational, geographical and disciplinary boundaries. Many people can find this quite challenging.