What is systems thinking?
Systems thinking offers you a powerful new perspective, a specialized language, and a set of tools that you can use to address the most stubborn problems in your everyday life and work. Systems thinking is a way of understanding reality that emphasizes the relationships among a system's parts, rather than the parts themselves. Based on a field of study known as system dynamics, systems thinking has a practical value that rests on a solid theoretical foundation.
Why is systems thinking important?
Why is systems thinking valuable? Because it can help you design smart, enduring solutions to problems. In its simplest sense, systems thinking gives you a more accurate picture of reality, so that you can work with a system's natural forces in order to achieve the results you desire. It also encourages you to think about problems and solutions with an eye toward the long view—for example, how might a particular solution you're considering play out over the long run? And what unintended consequences might it have? Finally, systems thinking is founded on some basic, universal principles that you will begin to detect in all arenas of life once you learn to recognize them.
What are systems?
What exactly is a system? A system is a group of interacting, interrelated, and interdependent components that form a complex and unified whole. Systems are everywhere—for example, the R&D department in your organization, the circulatory system in your body, the predator/prey relationships in nature, the ignition system in your car, and so on. Ecological systems and human social systems are living systems; human-made systems such as cars and washing machines are nonliving systems. Most systems thinkers focus their attention on living systems, especially human social systems. However, many systems thinkers are also interested in how human social systems affect the larger ecological systems in our planet.
Systems have several defining characteristics:
• Every system has a purpose within a larger system.Example: The purpose of the R&D department in your organization is to generate new product ideas and features for the organization.
• All of a system's parts must be present for the system to carry out its purpose optimally. Example: The R&D system in your organization consists of people, equipment, and processes. If you removed any one of these components, this system could no longer function.
• A system's parts must be arranged in a specific way for the system to carry out its purpose. Example: If you rearranged the reporting relationships in your R&D department so that the head of new-product development reported to the entry-level lab technician, the department would likely have trouble carrying out its purpose.
• Systems change in response to feedback. The word feedback plays a central role in systems thinking. Feedback is information that returns to its original transmitter such that it influences that transmitter's subsequent actions. Example: Suppose you turn too sharply while driving your car around a curve. Visual cues (you see a mailbox rushing toward you) would tell you that you were turning too sharply. These cues constitute feedback that prompts you to change what you're doing (jerk the steering wheel in the other direction somewhat) so you can put your car back on course.
• Systems maintain their stability by making adjustments based on feedback. Example: Your body temperature generally hovers around 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. If you get too hot, your body produces sweat, which cools you back down.
Systems Thinking as a Perspective:
Events, Patterns, or System?
Systems thinking is a perspective because it helps us see the events and patterns in our lives in a new light—and respond to them in higher leverage ways. For example, suppose a fire breaks out in your town. This is an event. If you respond to it simply by putting the fire out, you're reacting. (That is, you have done nothing to prevent new fires.) If you respond by putting out the fire and studying where fires tend to break out in your town, you'd be paying attention to patterns. For example, you might notice that certain neighborhoods seem to suffer more fires than others. If you locate more fire stations in those areas, you're adapting. (You still haven't done anything to prevent new fires.) Now suppose you look for the systems—such as smoke-detector distribution and building materials used—that influence the patterns of neighborhood-fire outbreaks. If you build new fire-alarm systems and establish fire and safety codes, you're creating change. Finally, you're doing something to prevent new fires!
This is why looking at the world through a systems thinking "lens" is so powerful: It lets you actually make the world a better place.
Systems Thinking as a Special Language
As a language, systems thinking has unique qualities that help you communicate with others about the many systems around and within us:
• It emphasizes wholes rather than parts, and stresses the role of interconnections—including the role we each play in the systems at work in our lives.
• It emphasizes circular feedback (for example, A leads to B, which leads to C, which leads back to A) rather than linear cause and effect (A leads to B, which leads to C, which leads to D, . . . and so on).
• It contains special terminology that describes system behavior, such as reinforcing process (a feedback flow that generates exponential growth or collapse) and balancing process (a feedback flow that controls change and helps a system maintain stability).
Systems Thinking as a Set of Tools
The field of systems thinking has generated a broad array of tools that let you (1) graphically depict your understanding of a particular system's structure and behavior, (2) communicate with others about your understandings, and (3) design high-leverage interventions for problematic system behavior.
These tools include causal loops, behavior over time graphs, stock and flow diagrams, and systems archetypes—all of which let you depict your understanding of a system—to computer simulation models and management "flight simulators," which help you to test the potential impact of your interventions.
Whether you consider systems thinking mostly a new perspective, a special language, or a set of tools, it has a power and a potential that, once you've been introduced, are hard to resist. The more you learn about this intriguing field, the more you'll want to know!