What is Systems Thinking?

Up until about ten minutes ago, I had been using a term (mostly in my head) called systems thinking, without actually bothering to investigate whether this concept was already in use and what it might mean to others. Thankfully, in order to keep the inspiration flowing for purposes of writing on this website, I just did a google search and unearthed some very interesting information.

First of all, my sense of systems thinking was quite limited and dare I say erroneous, when compared to what I discovered about how its being used by others.

Specifically, I considered systems thinking to be the practice of asking a question: how can an action or process be systematized, every time I encountered a bothersome occurrence.

Examples of this might be:

I just realized it’s so-and-so’s birthday (today!) and even though I knew this a few weeks ago, I didn’t remember and therefore didn’t get flowers/cake/whatever in advance. So I ask myself: how can I systematize in order to avoid this in the future? And the answer I come up with is: put the event on my calendar and (critically) add a three-day-in-advance notification.

Problem solved. (At least I think it’s solved… I’ll have to wait a whole year to test it… unless -lightbulb!- I implement the system for someone else who’s birthday (or anniversary, or whatever) is coming up sooner.

That’s a good idea. I think I’ll do that.

While writing in my journal this morning, I heard the distinct sound of a bat coming from the family room. Forget THAT issue for a moment, as the more concerning part was that the sound was followed by that of my dog rustling up in her crate and then running out of it to go jump into battle.

The problem here is that she was supposed to be closed-up in the crate. So I ask myself: how can I systematize the closing-up of her crate at night such any early morning bat-encounters are limited to humans and cats (who, understandably, resist overnight crating) and we don’t wake the entire household with the sounds of World War Three taking place?

Solution: make a sign and place it on the crate, to read:

Please lock the crate before going to bed!

(Maybe the exclamation point is over the top. This process will have to be tested and reviewed by all family members, I’m thinking.)

In any event, this is how I considered systems-thinking. And guess what? It’s actually quite different.

What Systems Thinking Really Is (according to the internet)

According to The Systems Thinker, (yes, there is a website!) systems thinking is sometimes considered to be a collection of tools and methods, and yet underlying that is a philosophy. Specifically:

…a sensitivity to the circular nature of the world we live in; an awareness of the role of structure in creating the conditions we face; a recognition that there are powerful laws of systems operating that we are unaware of; a realization that there are consequences to our actions that we are oblivious to.

Wow! That sounds fascinating.

In systems thinking, we’re talking about observing data and events over time, identifying patterns, and looking at the structures in which drive the interactions that cause the patterns to show up.

Confused yet?

Let’s see how we make an example from this.

If we take the earlier case of a missed or forgotten birthday, we can identify first of all that we are operating in a space of multiple people, with multiple events happening at various times. We have family, we have colleagues, we have clients. We all have schedules and calendars, and various things going on every day which connect, overlap, and possibly conflict. The tools and relationships we have will vary among the relationship nodes. For example, in the family, one spouse might keep track of all the personal-sphere birthdays. In a work environment, one (or more) administrator(s) might keep track of all the office birthdays. And then we have to ask the questions: are these pieces working together to our satisfaction? What is our ideal outcome?

In the case of birthday-management, are the structures providing the outcomes that we desire? And if the answer is no, how can we approach the situation from a different angle?

In her article Tools for Systems Thinkers: The 6 Fundamental Concepts of Systems Thinking, Leyla Acaroglu writes “we know that larger things emerge from smaller parts: emergence is the natural outcome of things coming together.”

So outcomes are as much (or more) the result of various things coming together as they are of a lone actor.

This can be a revelation for those of us with tendencies toward focusing on our own individual actions and outcomes.

When we think in terms of a system, we can ask more interesting questions:

How is this outcome (whether we view it as positive or negative) affected by a structure?

What are the parts of the structure and how are those parts connected?

When one element changes, what impact will that have on the rest of the structure?

Will any feedback loops be impacted, and how will that happen?

There is so much more to this idea of systems thinking, I can’t wait to dig in!

I’d love to hear what your experience is in thinking and working with systems. Connect with me on social media to share!




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