Systems Thinking Defined

Systems Thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static ‘snapshots.’ ” (Peter Senge)

It can also be summarized as providing the user a unique perspective on reality. For our use of systems thinking as it applies to our life and work, this is important. It provides us with a fascinating framework to look at all pieces of our life as an interrelated whole.

Systems Thinking is a new way to look at our life and work.

Classic thinking falls into a category known as rational, or reductionist thinking. As knowledge has advanced over the centuries, our ability to deeply understand the basic science that makes up the world around us has increased through the rational model approaches. Under a rational approach, individual complex elements are broken down (or reduced) to their lowest constituencies, so these “simpler” items can be analyzed and understood. This is an excellent methodology for understanding and specialization. However, it presents us with two key limitations.

Systems ThinkingFirst, it tends to ignore essential interactions, and their effects, on the constituent element being analyzed.

Second, applying this model assumes that we can have, or obtain, complete knowledge. We all know from the messiness of life that this second element is not possible in real terms.

By applying systems thinking, we can look at the parts of our life as a whole, and we can accept that we don’t know everything we need to know at any of our static snapshots. By accepting these realities, we can plan to the best of our abilities (i.e. not exhaustively), begin to act, and adjust our plan as this messy life happens. This allows us to be BOTH proactive and reactive. This allows to be effective AND adaptable/flexible.

This approach to planning and decision-making requires a key paradigm shift in our approach, which allows us to model our approach around two “truths”:

  1. We can’t know everything before we start due to lack of time, resources or randomness.
  2. Once we start, we’ll know more and can act more effectively in light of new information or understanding.

In the next several posts we will discuss tools we can apply to execute the second approach. These posts will delve into the areas of our mental models, decision-thinking, and complexity-vs-simplicity. This will require some skeptical application of tools, since many are designed under the guise of the rational model.

In other words, tools will only do part of the job. They will help us in four key areas; capture, understanding, planning and context. In the end we have to be aware of limitations and utility to make “the system” work for us.