Systems Thinking

Why do people fall into alcoholism, drug addiction, and homelessness? Why has the world population grown from 2.5 billion in the 1950s to over 7 billion today? What do climate scientists believe about man-made global warming and should we be concerned? What happens to ecosystems when certain species go extinct? Why is it that the costs of prisons, education, and healthcare can balloon without similar improvements in quality? Why do black markets form when regulations prohibit their legal use? Why are some systems more fragile than others?

What is Systems Thinking?
Systems Thinking is a theoretical framework and practical methodology for understanding how and why systems behave the way they do. Complex open systems often elude us because they have infinite interconnections and relationships between infinite parts, leading to nonlinear and often unpredictable behavior. There is a tendency to want to design and control social systems to behave according to our plans, similar to the way we can design computers and machines. But believing we can do this requires us to strip relationships of their complexity and simplify the natures of living organisms.

We cannot control nature, but we can understand how it works and do our best with the knowledge we have to make decisions within this greater universe we are a part of. We can learn to work with, rather than against, the systems we are a part of.

Understanding Laws of Nature

When you drop a glass on a hard floor, you expect it to break. When you see lighting nearby, you expect to hear thunder soon after. These are physical laws at work. In social systems, we deal with laws of human nature where we ask, why do people act the way they do? If you are interested in improving your own life or helping improve others’ lives, you must understand the laws of human nature. However, many people in positions of influence don’t have a grasp of these natural laws. They wonder why society doesn’t just go according to their plan for it, or why people don’t behave the way their models predict.

Social systems can be understood by those who study the underlying cause-effect structures that produce the visible behaviors we observe. Whether the system is a romantic relationship, a company, a national economy, or a wildlife ecosystem, there exists a small set of common universal archetypes and natural principles that help us understand why a beautifully dynamic world produces its own behaviors, often not going the way any one of us can perfectly predict.

Today, there is an overload of Information we can grasp onto. Connecting this abundant and scattered information into narratives creates Knowledge. Framing that Knowledge with a Systems Thinking framework allows us to access Wisdom. What may seem like random and surprising behavior to others becomes rational and often predictable to a systems thinker.

As we become familiar with systems thinking, we realize that our systems are not “broken” – they are behaving exactly as they should given the capabilities of its parts, the goals of its agents, the effects of various policies and rules, and the complex interactions that produce reactions and future actions.

Why Systems Thinking?

Systems are everywhere and they impact every aspect of our wellbeing. You are part of many systems and systems within systems – the company you work for, the industry you work in, the national economy, the global economy. You’ve participated in the education system and healthcare system of your country. And if you live in a democracy, you have the opportunity to vote for candidates to assume government positions and vote for or against local laws  that you most likely have limited and biased information about.

Systems thinking helps us make sense of these systems. Like any discipline worth pursuing, it requires training and practice to unlearn existing mental models and apply new concepts in the real world. Systems thinking can be hard. People tend to focus on the short-term consequences and miss the long-term. We tend to see one part of a system, and ignore all the other parts. We see the same recurring negative behavior patterns in individuals and in societies and often intervene in ways that lead to unintended consequences that create more problems. Yet we wonder why history often repeats itself. We are too ill-informed and time-constrained to understand all the implications of public policies that have real effects on our daily lives.  We watch and sometimes participate in many wars – on drugs, the rich, the terrorists, the racists, the poor, the corporations, the political establishment, and every other group imaginable.

And to what avail? Systems thinking aims to understand rather than take sides. It trains you to look objectively at problems by applying a rational cause-and-effect chain of reasoning in order to explain why things occur and foresee what is likely to happen.  It helps you apply a clear thinking framework across disciplines, accelerating your ability to understand topics you previously had little familiarity with. Over time, you’ll be able to better identify negative behavior patterns, identify root causes to your problems, and make better decisions to help you get an outcome you want.

How Systems Thinking Benefits You

Systems thinking trains you to pay attention to patterns over time, and uncover the many causal mechanisms leading to these recurring patterns. A systems thinker makes an unbiased assessment of her current position within these larger systems, predicts how the many parts are likely to behave in the future, and comes up with creative actions she can take to reach her personal goals.

You can apply systems thinking to determine which city to live in, what to study in college (or to skip college altogether), where to allocate your financial assets, what to think of public policies, and how to win friends and influence people.

A systems thinker learns to see the unseen. In doing so, she foresees the unintended consequences that confound others. Where others are looking for empirically observable data, a systems thinker develops true wisdom by seeking to understand reality. Many things that seem to be true when we concentrate only on the seen turn out to be illusions when we consider all the seen and unseen forces. The challenge of systems thinking is to consider problems as wholes and not just a selection of fragmented parts.

Practices of a Systems Thinker

  1. Thinking of the “big picture”
  2. Observe short-term and long-term consequences
  3. Recognizing the dynamic, complex, and interdependent nature of systems
  4. Taking into account the seen and unseen consequences
  5. 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

If a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves. . . . There’s so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.

—Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance


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