What is systems thinking?
Systems thinking is a problem structuring approach that improves the quality of our perceptions of a situation. It can help to bring about common understandings, enabling us to get a better grasp of why things work like they do and why we get the outcomes that we get.
We do not just look at ‘things’ but at the interactions between things and what happens as a result of those interactions. Rather than analysis of parts, we aim for synthesis of a situation to gain greater understanding. This helps us to explore what obstructs, disrupts, delays, diverts or supports and encourages our efforts.
We explore purposes and identity, interconnections and interdependencies. We focus on perceptions, projections and biases, behaviours, assumptions and communication. We look at interactions, influences and relationships. We explore boundaries and how we collaborate and reciprocate. It helps us to understand why decisions that made sense at one point in time might no longer be appropriate and why we might need to do something different now. We explore at both a micro and macro level to gain an understanding of the ecosystem in which we are embedded. Only then can we understand how flexible and adaptable we might be.
In short, systems thinking is a different way of looking at situations. A way that has the potential to open us up to new possibilities that we may never have previously contemplated.
Applying systems thinking
Systems thinking gives a range of 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 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? Or been blamed yourself? That is our traditional Western model of thinking kicking in. The trick is to be aware of it and challenge it. Systems thinking can help with that. It helps you focus on the bigger picture (like taking a helicopter view) and the interconnections involved. It helps you to embrace 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?
To get a wider range of more sustainable improvements we need to jump right into the complexity around us and get a good understanding of our context. Systems thinking can help you do that and it can 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 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 way 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 might 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 find new and different ways. It’s ok to change your mind and evolve.
Most of our organisations nowadays are bureaucratic and rely heavily upon project management. Both of these things are classic barriers to systems thinking. Bureaucracy can hinder the process and project management often does not 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 trajectories.
And, finally, by its very nature, it crosses disciplinary boundaries. Many people can find this quite challenging.