Systems thinking originated in 1956, when Professor Jay Forrester founded the Systems Dynamic Group at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. It 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.
Watch the following 45-minutes webinar to gain a comprehensive understanding of what is “Systems Thinking”:
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. It 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.
In general, systems thinking is characterized by these principles:
- thinking of the “big picture”
- balancing short-term and long-term perspectives
- recognizing the dynamic, complex, and interdependent nature of systems
- considering both measurable and non-measurable factors
- remembering that we are all part of the systems in which we function and that we each influence those systems even as we are being influenced by them
When Should You Use Systems Thinking?
Problems that are ideal for 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 (a recurring problem).
Systems thinking can help you break through the clutter of everyday events to recognize general patterns of behaviour and the structures that are producing them. It also helps in separating solutions from underlying problems. Too often we identify problems in terms of their solution. For example, “The problem is that we have too many (people, initiatives, steps in our process), or “The problem is that we have too little (resources, information, budget).” Therefore, Systems thinking is most effective when it’s used to look at a problem in a new way, not to advocate a predetermined solution.
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?”
Don’t attempt to solve a problem immediately – complex and persistent systemic problems cannot be represented or much less understood overnight. The time and concentration required should be proportional to the difficulty and scope of the issues involved. Your goal should be to achieve a fuller and wider understanding of the problem. 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.
It is important to note that you shouldn’t work with systems thinking techniques under pressure, or in front of a group that is unprepared for or intolerant of the learning process – if your audience is not familiar with the concepts and methods of systems thinking. They might not understand that the process reveals mental models, can be controversial, and is highly iterative in nature.
You should then introduce your group to our 1-day masterclass “Overcoming Organizational System Blindness with System Thinking for Greater Productivity”. In this session, you will learn how to develop a powerful and multidimensional thinking skillset that can help you to identify and remedy chronic, complex problems. You will understand not only the full extent of the nature of the problem but rather why it is happening. Upon completion of the course, you will be able to look at a challenging situation with a calm disposition and then come up with a creative solution that does not cause too much disruption to the current system.
When you encounter situations that 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.