What is Systems Thinking? admin August 29, 2010

What is Systems Thinking?

Systems thinking is a bit of a buzzword and often people wonder what it actually means and how does it have any practical uses.

I thought I would write a short(ish) article on it, starting off with a few illustrations of systems thinking in real life.

  • The annoying shower

You are staying at a small hotel, it is the first time you have been there, and you decide to take a shower. You run the water but it is a bit cold so you turn on more hot water. It does not seem to have any effect so you turn on more hot water. Still no effect, so even more hot water. Suddenly the water becomes scalding! You scream and turn the hot water down. Still scalding. Turn it down more, still scalding. Turn it down even more and suddenly it becomes icy! You spend the rest of the time in a shower that alternates between sub-zero and blistering and your experience is less than satisfactory.

  • The stone mason

A stone mason taps away at a stone and there is no visible effect. Yet, he understands that something is happening inside and, with one more tap, it shears in exactly the way he wanted.

  • The traffic jam (1)

You drive to work and every morning there is a tailback at the same junction where two lanes go down to one. You cant believe how the local authorities are so stupid because it would just take a simple widening of this junction and the traffic jams would be solved. One Monday morning, to your amazement and happiness, you drive to work and see that finally they have taken your (mental) advice and have widened the junction over the weekend. Hurrah, you drive through smoothly and think why on earth did they not do that before. And then, you sit once again in a long tailback as the only effect of the weekend’s roadworks is to move the bottleneck 400m further along the road to the very next junction.

  • The traffic jam (2)

One Saturday morning, you notice how glorious the weather is so you jump in your car to drive to the seaside. Unfortunately, so does everybody else and the net result is you actually spend two hours in a traffic jam, sweltering in your car, before you turn back in frustration.

  • The client who never returns your calls

You are trying to get hold of a client but are finding it difficult. You keep ringing and leaving messages and emailing them but they never reply. One evening you play squash with a friend and it turns out he is also a friend of your client. Two days later your client calls you and is really pleased to talk to you.

So what exactly is Systems Thinking?

Each of these scenarios are illustrations of what is known as ‘systems thinking’ which is based on the premise that our actions are not simple agent-reagent situations. Our actions can never be considered in isolation but we need to take into account the fact that we operate within a larger world (the system) and our actions impinge on that system and the actions of the system impinge on us. What is more, this system is dynamic so it can change even as we act upon it.

  • It may be that it can take a while before our actions feed their way through the system before we see the desired (or even undesired) effect (eg, the hot and cold shower).
  • The result of our actions may be quite invisible but there is still something happening (eg, the stone mason). 
  • We need to optimise globally rather than locally. What may be a great solution for one part of the jigsaw can cause damage further along the line (eg, the traffic bottleneck).
  • The world may change even as we act and we need to take into account other people’s responses (the traffic jam on a sunny day).
  • Sometimes banging on a closed door just wont work but there may be an indirect approach that gets you around the door (the squash player’s friend).

Managing Complexity 

How do you deal with such complexity and uncertainty? The key thing is to be flexible and ready to adapt to whatever happens.

The second thing is to build an understanding of the system (whether that is your team, your organisation, the industry, the country, whatever it might be) and how it responds. Consider how the stone mason has an intuitive feel for where and how to tap and when the stone will finally respond.

Map the system visually

As a technique, visually mapping the system can be very useful to start to see where are the lines of force.

On a sheet of paper, draw out all the elements of the system (it does not have to be a work of art, stick-men will do!) and annotate the connections between them. When we say “elements of the system”, that’s usually people. It could be yourself, your team, your boss, your boss’s boss, your F.D., your customers, your suppliers and so on. Anybody who impacts (directly and actively or indirectly and passively) what you are trying to achieve.

Then look at the map: Where are the lines of force? Where are the feedback forces? If you act in one place, what will be the knock-on effect? Or, working backwards, for you to achieve your desired effect overall, where would be the best place to intervene?

So when would I use this?

This is a really powerful way to understand complicated situations.

  • It will give you an understanding of the politics of your organisation.
  • It will let you know how to navigate your way through a complex, multi-party negotiation.
  • It will give you a way to break the impasse when a customer of yours says ‘yes’ but never gets around to signing.
  • It will help you influence someone that you never even get to meet.
  • It will help you know how to introduce change and how to manage it successfully.
  • It will help you understand any complex situation involving more than one person.

All very useful stuff!

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