Systems Thinker Mindset
For a long time Systems Thinking was talked about and developed mainly by academics but not so often practised. The day-to-day dramas and crisis just got in the way and lets be frank about this right up-front the Accountants really couldn’t get on board with the whole Systems Thinking thing. Accordingly managers were faced with the prospect of trying to cost-cut their way to success – well I wish the very best of luck with that strategy in the long-term.
But I’m glad to say that Systems Thinking is just about making an impression. Complex organisations with complex issues to resolve have found the answers often times lie in looking at their systems. Organisations are increasingly looking to transition to a Circular Economy, seeking out sustainability in design and engaging with their people in less directive ways of working.
Words have Power
Systems Thinking is littered with words, very specific words that intentionally define sets of actions. Words such as;
- Feedback Loops
The Tool Kits
Systems Thinkers will think in a circular fashion, unlike the every day way of thinking which is linear generally speaking. By implication then everything is considered to be interconnected (not in a spiritual or religious sense, more in the biological sciences sense). Essentially all parts of the system rely on all parts of the system one way or the other.
So to illustrate; Animals (and I include Humans here) need food, air, and water to sustain life and trees need carbon dioxide and sunlight to thrive. The trees give back oxygen to replenish the clean air and offer fruit to eat and even filters water or acts to retain water avoiding floods down stream, whereas animals eat the fruit, drink water from the streams and spread the seeds leading to new tree life. Humans will cut down the trees for farmland and buildings so letting light into closed areas and burn the wood providing a supply of carbon dioxide. The relationship although simply put is plain to see.
- Your mobile phone needs electricity distribution channels to function
- Chairs and Tables made of wood need trees to grow to provide the wood
- Humans and domesticated pets need shelter and warmth to survive
So when we look at the world from a Systems Thinker’s perspective we can say that a defining principle is that ‘everything is interconnected’. Accepting this description of the world we can then shift the way we think from a linear, ‘mechanical worldview’ to a dynamic, chaotic, interconnected rainbow of relationships and feedback loops.
As a Systems Thinker I use this way of thinking and mindset to untangle and work through complexity.
A System is a set of related components that work together in a particular environment to perform whatever functions are required to achieve the systems objective.Donella Meadows – UNSCHOOL
Generally speaking this is the combining of two or more components to create something new. When applied to Systems Thinking the goal is synthesis rather than analysis (which is a reductionist worldview fitting with the linear world of thinking where complexity is dissected into parts in an effort to make sense of it).
But, all systems are complex and dynamic and so we need a holistic approach when trying to understand situations. Synthesis is about understanding the whole and the parts at the same time in tandem to understanding the relationships and connections.
Essentially Synthesis is the ability to see interconnectedness!
Systems Thinkers are aware that larger things emerge from smaller things. Emergence is the outcome of synergies of the parts, its non-linear and self-organising. So emergence describes the outcome of things and situations acting together and on one-another.
In my experience people often find emergence a tricky subject to conceptualise, when they get it they then realise they have gone through and emergent experience. Their brains have been processing the difficult to conceptualise information – the information and information giver has been acting on and with the individual and the individual has been acting on the information giver so that they can adapt the information into a form that can be understood. And that is a complex to understand but non-the-less an example of emergence in action.
Since all parts of a system are interconnected it then follows that there are constantly flowing feedback loops between the elements of a system. As a Systems Thinker acting on and in a system we can intervene in the feedback loops once we have an understanding of what is going on and the dynamics at play.
There are two basic types of feedback loops;
Reinforcing – not necessarily a good thing. Reinforcing feedback loops lead to an abundance situation where other elements are then over-run or even suffocated completely. In reinforcing feedback loops the dominant element will refine itself and takeover completely leading to less complexity, less diversity.
Balancing – the system naturally seeks to balance things out. In nature for example predator animals are outnumbered massively by prey animals. Nature has figured out that if the predators took too many prey eventually all animals die. Dramatic example I know, but think it through for a moment and see the truth.
Understanding feedback loops is about having insight and perspective on causation. How an element acts with another in a dynamic and constantly evolving system.
Cause and effect is a very common and well understood principle generally. Parents use the concept frequently when trying to teach and enlighten their young with regards critical life lessons.
In Systems Thinking causality is really about being able to figure out the way in which elements of a system influence each-other. In doing so we as Systems Thinkers can gain deeper perspectives on agency, feedback loops, connections and relationships – all fundamental parts when mapping systems.
Systems Mapping is a key tool used by Systems Thinkers in understanding the system under consideration. There are many methods of mapping, from cluster mapping to complex digitised feedback analysis. But the underlying principles remain the same;
Identify and map the elements within a system to see how they are interconnected and relate to each-other and act in a complex system. From here you can develop unique insights used to shape interventions, shifts or policy decisions that will (dramatically) change the system in the most effect ways.
This post is a short introduction to six of the key concepts of Systems Thinking which are critical building blocks for developing a way more detailed perspective of how systems work. I’ve posted this introduction as a way of trying to get readers to engage in divergent and creative thinking when it comes to systems.
What does however, stand out for me is that those who engage openly and actively in Systems Thinking to resolve issues or improve situations is that individuals gain a sense of agency over their situation and act positively for themselves and for the benefit of the organisations they are part of.
If you have read this and want go deeper or would like some help and guidance then;
Tools of a Systems Thinker – Leyla Acaroglu