What is system thinking?
How do we think about systems in a systemic way?
There are many different ideas about systems thinking, and approaches to understanding systems. You will doubtless develop your own version.
For me, Martin Sandbrook, ‘systems thinking’ is a way of being. It involves a way of seeing or interpreting the world through thought and feeling. It is an attitude of openness, of inquiry, of looking from many perspectives, inner and outer, of holding, or trying to hold, an awareness of my own beliefs and assumptions, of noticing my reaction to things, of understanding the world as an unfolding process where everything is in relation to everything else.
It is an attitude of compassion and love, avoiding judgement, seeking to understand rather than be understood. It is an attitude that is always curious, always ready to learn and amend, realising that to truly know something or somebody, is probably never fully possible, that knowing comes in many forms and is often partial or incomplete, that learning is a subjective process involving a relationship between me and what I am seeking to know, which affects both me and the that which I am trying to understand. It means being prepared to let go of the need to be right, or the fear of uncertainty or the illusion of control.
It contrasts with the mechanistic, reductionist and scientific view of the world, perhaps transcending, but still including it, seeing it as incomplete.
From this systemic way of being, everything else flows. I can interpret the world, sometimes as simple (mechanistic and linear), sometimes as complicated (but still essentially predictable, however complicated it may be), sometimes as complex (where the unexpected emerges, often as a result of human behaviour) and sometimes even as chaotic and unknowable. In each case, I can make use of different tools of interpretation, from the hard and analytical (feedback loops, systems maps) to the soft and fluid (rich pictures, action experiment). I can appreciate different perspectives and the influence of power. I can think and feel the world as a continuously responding process, a set of ideas which exist only in a mutually influencing relationship to each other and to me, which unfold, through conversation or perhaps dialogue.
And I can rely on more subjective, more ‘first person’ ways of knowing – inner and outer. Of course, I can still learn from experts, but I now do this in the context of my own way of being. I can also rely more confidently on ways of knowing which are not openly accepted as valid in our scientific world – intuition, experience, knowing through enacting or being, because I have a way of testing with myself whether these are valid, useful or reliable.
(This extract is drawn from a longer article called ‘Systems Thinking – So What?’)
- Try letting go of the need to be right!.
- Deliberately ask others for their view of something – perhaps something you need to find a solution for.
- Notice the effect – inner and outer, on you and on others, or on the system.
- Where are you in relation to what you are calling the system?
References (in order of significance to Me)
E F Schumacher (1974) Small is Beautiful, A study of economics as if people mattered. Abacus edition, Sphere Books, London
Capra, Fritjof (1997) The Web of Life, a new synthesis of mind and matter. Flamingo, London
Allan Kaplan (2002) Development Practitioners and Social Process – Artists of the Invisible First few chapters. Pluto Press, London
Michael C Jackson (2003) Systems Thinking, Creative Holism for Managers. John Wiley and Sons, Chichester, UK
Donella Meadows (2009) Thinking in Systems, a primer. Earthscan, London
William Perry (1970) Forms of Intellectual Development in the College Years Holt, Rinehart and Winston, USA (see also http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2FBF00892447#page-1)
Gregory Bateson (1972) Steps to an Ecology of Mind. University of Chicago Press.
(Bateson is hard to follow in his own words. You might prefer a book by Noel G Charlton (2008) Understanding Gregory Bateson: Mind, beauty and the sacred earth. State University of New York Press, Albany USA or the relevant chapter of Berman M (1984) The Re-enchantment of the world Bantam, Cornell University Press)
Jean Boulton and Peter Allen (2007) Emerging and Integrating Perspectives – Chapter 14, Complexity
Ralph Stacey (2012) Tools and Techniques of Management and Leadership: Meeting the Challenge of Complexity Routledge, UK
Peter Senge (2006) The Fifth Discipline - The Art and Practice of a Learning Organisation. 2nd Revised Edition Random House
Stephan Harding (2006) Animate Earth, Science, Intuition and Gaia. Green Books, Totnes, UK
Alistair McIntosh (2001) – Soil and Soul, People versus corporate power. Aurum Press (Also Hell and High Water)
David Abram (1996) The Spell of the Sensuous, First Vintage Press. Also his latest book Becoming Animal
Malcolm Gladwell (2000) The Tipping point. How little things can make a big difference. Abacus, London
Wilkinson R and Pickett K (2009) The Spirit Level. Why equality is better for everyone. Allen Lane. London
Paul Stamets (2004) Mycellium Running Ten Speed Press, USA
Arie De Geus (1997) The Living Company Nicholas Brearley, USA
William McDonough and Michael Braungart (2002) Cradle to Cradle – Remaking the Way We Make Things North Point Press, New York
Thomas Berry (1990) The Great Work Sierra Club Books, California
Thomas Berry (2006) Evening Thoughts Sierra Club Books, California
In depth (bullet point summary from the video, above)
For me, systems thinking falls into two parts – inner and outer
Systems Thinking - the 'inner' part
Following these key ideas:
- “Our task is to look at the world and see it whole.” - EF Schumacher
- “To change the way we act, we need first to change the way we think (and feel).” – derived from Donella Meadows
- “There is no 'something' - only relationships between bundles of ideas rooted in their context.” - Gregory Bateson
Looking at an issue from multiple perspectives
- My assumptions and beliefs
- Your assumptions and beliefs
- Our assumptions and beliefs
External perspective - The "Objective" view
While being constantly aware of the effect of our assumptions and beliefs on how we interpret the world.
Aware that our level of knowledge is limited by our level of consciousness, that it is always open to change in the light of new information
Having a mindset which is open…
to continual learning - where learning is about my relationship to what I know and its relationship to me, where knowing involves experience, intuition and action, as well as 'objective fact'
Being comfortable with uncertainty
Acting with 'committed intention' (as per Jaworski in Synchronicity)
Accepting things as provisional, for the time being
Living life as inquiry
Self-aware - or aspiring to this
Watching my reactions:
- My thoughts
- My feelings
- My impulses
Holding an awareness of my current worldview and assumptions
Moving toward solutions - rather than away from problems
Embracing what emerges
Working with 'both and', not 'either-or'
Transcending but still including - for example, transcending the purely mechanical but still including it as vital
Integrating It, I and We perspectives - including the subjective and inter-subjective (as per Ken Wilber)
Describing rather than defining
Comfortable with plurality
Seeing the world as multidimensional
Based on the metaphors of organisms rather than machines
Aware of the limitations of reductionist, linear and mechanistic thinking
Inquiring rather than advocating
Open to other ways of knowing
- Through experience
- Through intuition
- Through expression
- Through ideas and theories
- Through action
Moving toward better ways of acting
- Through collaboration
- Through cycles of reflection and experimental action
- While being open to what emerges
- While holding the awareness of our worldview, our assumptions
Systems thinking - the 'outer' part
Establishing what it is we are calling a 'system' while being aware of, and questioning, boundaries
How real are the boundaries?
A boundary is a point of relationship with another system
Are they physical?
Are they socially constructed?
How do things change if we widen the system to include other aspects?
What are we including in the boundary?
What are we excluding?
What are the goals?
What purpose does the system serve?
What is the unfolding process?
Does it transform something?
Who acts within this system?
What freedom do the actors have?
What do these actors do?
Looking at how the system maintains itself
What are the underlying assumptions?
Is there a prevailing 'Paradigm'?
This is the way we do things round here?
What is the context?
What is taken for granted?
What are the relationships which comprise the system?
Who owns the system?
Who could stop it or change it?
Who holds power?
How does it work?
What form does it take?
What are the political forces?
What language prevails?
Is it exclusive or inclusive?
Written or verbal?
What are the shared narratives?
The stories people tell
Is there a dominant discourse?
Or many discourses?
Are there heroes - why are they heroes?
Are there villains - why are they villains?
Trying to establish the properties of the system
How is this greater than the sum of its parts?
What stays the same, while the system elements constantly change?
How does it self-organise?
Are the nature of the issues within it:
Convergent or divergent?
Complicated or complex?
Does it learn?
Does it have properties of mind?
Arcs linking things or people
Information of difference
Trying to understand the Internal Characteristics
Build a Rich Picture
Checkland - Soft systems methodology
Or, use Systems Dynamics (Donella meadows / Peter Senge), aspects of which include:
Behaviour over time
The strength of these?
Stocks & Flows
Who has it?
Who does not have it?
How timely is it?
How complete is it?
What is the nature of the metrics, how it is measured?
Are there incentives?
What are the rules of the game?
Are there traps operating?
Success to the successful
Tragedy of the commons
Race to the bottom
Fixes that fail
Schismogenesis (like the arms race, for example)
Looking at how this system relates to other systems:
Eg. Social, Political, Ecological
How does it maintain itself externally?