Systems thinking originated in 1956, when Professor Jay Forrester founded the Systems Dynamic Group at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

Systems thinking is a holistic approach to analysis that focuses on the way that a system’s constituent parts interrelate and how systems work over time and within the context of larger systems.

Systems thinking in practice encourages us to explore inter-relationships (context and connections), perspectives (each actor has their own unique perception of the situation) and boundaries (agreeing on scope, scale and what might constitute an improvement).

Why Use Systems Thinking?

Systems thinking is particularly useful in addressing complex or wicked problem situations.

Systems thinking expands the range of choices available for solving a problem by broadening our thinking and helping us articulate problems in new and different ways. At the same time, the principles of systems thinking make us aware that there are no perfect solutions; the choices we make will have an impact on other parts of the system. By anticipating the impact of each trade-off, we can minimize its severity or even use it to our own advantage. Systems thinking therefore allows us to make informed choices.

When Should You Use Systems Thinking?

Problems that are ideal for a systems thinking intervention have the following characteristics:

  • The issue is important.
  • The problem is chronic, not a one-time event.
  • The problem is familiar and has a known history.
  • People have unsuccessfully tried to solve the problem before.

How Should You Start?

When you begin to address an issue, avoid assigning blame (which is a common place for teams to start a discussion!). Instead, focus on items that people seem to be glossing over and try to arouse the group’s curiosity about the problem under discussion. To focus the conversation, ask, “What is it about this problem that we don’t understand?”

In addition, to get the full story out, have the group describe the problem from all three angles of the Iceberg: events, patterns, and structure.

Finally, we often assume that everyone has the same picture of the past or knows the same information. It’s therefore important to get different perspectives in order to make sure that all viewpoints are represented and that solutions are accepted by the people who need to implement them. When investigating a problem, involve people from various departments or functional areas; you may be surprised to learn how different their mental models are from yours.

In our 1-day masterclass “Overcoming Organizational System Blindness with Systems Thinking for Greater Productivity” you will learn how to develop a powerful and multidimensional thinking skill set that can help you to identify and remedy chronic, complex problems – by understanding not only the full extent of the nature of the problem, rather why it is happening. You will be able to look at challenging situation with a calm disposition and then come up with creative solution that does not cause too much disruption to the current system.

Conclusion

When you encounter situations which are complex and messy, then systems thinking can help you understand the situation systemically. This helps us to see the big picture – from which we may identify multiple leverage points that can be addressed to support constructive change. It also helps us see the connectivity between elements in the situation, so as to support joined-up actions.

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System Thinking

Systems thinking: what, why, when, where, and how?