Gene also played an important role in the development of this blog’s latest posts on systems thinking, Beginning using Systems Thinking for New Community Paradigms, not just talking about it and Better Deliberative and Participatory Democratic Community Based Governance through Systems Thinking.
Recently, he asked a basic question about systems thinking, “How do I make use of this systems thinking stuff?” The question then arises not from any form of general ignorance but as a means, based on experience, in providing a learning opportunity. As Gene stated himself, “If you would consider this as a question posed in earnest by someone really looking for guidance and respond in kind I would be most appreciative.”
My involvement with systems thinking started from the outside looking in by seeing the possibility of Systems Thinking as a disciplined process for Community Governance, never having asked the question in such a straight forward manner up until now. This makes me somewhat closer to the earnest but unlearned questioner than to the standard Systems Thinking in Action member. This may be a benefit, as it appears that some in systems thinking are better at talking to others in systems thinking than to the general public.
Dear Earnest Questioner,
I am writing in response to your question “How do I make use of this systems thinking stuff?” Since I am focusing on community issues and you are asking from an organizational perspective, I am going to amend the question to “How do we make use of this systems thinking stuff?” and cover some general aspects while providing you with some additional resources to review, if you want.
I won’t spend too much time directly on defining what is systems thinking? I will let others address that from a number of different perspectives. There isn’t, I suspect, any definition with which everyone will fully agree.
What Is Systems Thinking?
“Systems thinking utilizes habits, tools and concepts to develop an understanding of the interdependent structures of dynamic systems. When individuals have a better understanding of systems, they are better able to the identify the leverage points that lead to desired outcomes.”
First, systems thinking can provide you and your community with a new way of looking at the world. Second, systems thinking can provide you and your community a new way of approaching the world. Third, systems thinking can provide you and your community a new way of interacting with the world.
Now it may seem an inefficient use of words to write three sentences instead of one but systems thinking(pdf) is a far newer way of looking at the world than the reductionistic and mechanistic approach that came out of the age of Newton, and is radically (as in fundamentally) different from how we are usually taught to understand the world.
Both the mechanistic, reductionistic approach and the systems thinking approach break whatever is being studied into smaller parts but systems thinking emphasizes the relationships between the parts. So it makes sense to break down a question about systems thinking and look at individual aspects and how they relate to each other.
The primary thing, unsurprisingly, is that systems thinking approaches that world and its contents as systems. It does not matter which specific system or set of circumstances with which you are working, biological, engineering, social, economic, computers, if it consists of multiple elements related to each other in a dynamic fashion then systems thinking can be applied to its processes.
Systems thinking then is not merely a matter of adopting a new process or strategy, it is a different way of thinking about and understanding the world, particularly complex challenges facing communities or what are also known as wicked problems. The ones that you may believe we have no hope in solving because they are just too complex.
Systems thinking is a means of addressing complexity. Complexity arises out of the systems we create or attempt to harness but its impact is so great and its reach is so intrusively intwining that it can be considered an entity in and of itself.
Using systems based on attempts to apply mechanistic physics Newtonian and reductionistic methodologies to business and human capital, we have created numerous institutions based on these principles which impose strategies of ‘complicatedness’ in an attempt to box in and control the inherent complexity emerging from those systems that we have attempted to harness or created. This brings up a whole other set of issues. The problem is that the approach that we have usually adopted in understanding the world and implementing solutions to problems often falls short causing unintended, bigger problems.
Systems thinking, broadly defined, presumes multiple elements and agents. Turning to some of the many resources from Systems thinking helps in Enabling a Better Tomorrow by providing a common platform in realizing today’s reality. If you clicked on the link at the end of the last sentence you were taken to an Insightmaker.com systems thinking model. This type of model was introduced in the Beginning using Systems Thinking for New Community Paradigms, not just talking about it post as an efficient means of collaborative graphic communication.
There is an arrow in the bottom right hand corner of the model that if clicked will unfold the elements making up this particular system model of ‘reality’. Reality needs quotes here because we are imposing our own definition on but it is a definition can be made apparent and shared by all.
If you are absolutely fine with the results of top down management control of both information and decision making and its results, then systems thinking may not be for you. However, if you believe that something needs to drastically change to the extent of inducing a paradigm shift in our communities then perhaps systems thinking is something you should consider but you will need not to not only change your own perspective on the world but also create a platform that does the same for others and that continuously does so.
This brings up the second benefit of systems thinking as a new way of approaching the world. It is one thing though to understand the world by whichever means one chooses, it is another to determine how to approach that world, especially if it involves other people. Better Deliberative and Participatory Democratic Community Based Governance through Systems Thinking was an initial step in dealing with this aspect. Even if a system does not require input from others, it will still involve the participation of others as agents. If this doesn’t then it is likely a simpler problem that could be addressed by a more algorithmic approach.
Experience tells me that not everyone will agree with your model, not even your basic premise. The point though is not to win arguments but to attain a better understanding and to find optimal, mutually beneficial solutions whenever possible. Others may realize that your proposed system needs to be expanded to include other relevant elements. Others may be able to see missing elements or missing connections or may take a completely different approach.
This is not such a great approach if your primary goal is to have personal power over the system. However, presuming that you are working for the benefit of the system with which you are concerned, it is an excellent way to discover optimal solutions and avoid unintended consequences.
So you and your community have changed how you look at the world seeing it as interrelated and your approach to it as more collaborative but you still have to create and impose viable solutions. This is where things can get sticky.
"Systems thinking can be powerful, but too often remains an abstraction. The challenge for us all is to develop our systems thinking skills, help others develop their capabilities and bring systems thinking into our everyday lives -- to move beyond slogans and on to action."There is still a tremendous gap between the general public and the experts in the field of systems thinking in my view. In part, the problem is too many and too much in terms of resources with a myriad of highly evolved approaches. General systems thinking discussions are too often scholastic in nature, and I mean that in the medieval sense, going on endlessly into multiple tangents, not helping reach a solution with whatever challenge a community may be facing. This, however, is an issue with systems thinkers not system thinking. From a community perspective you need to do more than just hire some experts in systems thinking to interact and address your challenges for you. The gap needs to be narrowed from both sides. For you, this will involve initiating the first two steps already provided. This is one of the primary benefits of systems thinking, its proper application improves not only the situation at hand but its future application as well. It will also likely require a disruption of at least some extent of the existing system. It is my hypothesis that systems thinking can play a role in that as well.