Systems Thinking is a powerful set of problem solving tools and techniques based on system analysis and design, explained by Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline, that helps us avoid unintended consequences and find optimal solutions to complex problems.
By explaining how these cycles and delays work to create and change the systems around us - from our economic and political systems right down to the human systems made up of and inside our own bodies and minds - Systems Thinking offers an incredible set of problem solving tools and techniques to help us understand and optimize areas suffering due to complex problems.
Have you ever had a situation or issue that you wanted to improve, but, no matter what you tried, it just persisted? Or perhaps it not only persisted, but it seemed to continue to get worse despite your best-intentioned approaches? In such cases, taking a Systems Thinking approach may help you break through and find more effective, more sustainable solutions.
Peter Senge, in The Fifth Discipline, explains:
"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.” It is a set of general principles — distilled over the course of the twentieth century, spanning fields as diverse as the physical and social sciences, engineering, and management....During the last thirty years, these tools have been applied to understand a wide range of corporate, urban, regional, economic, political, ecological, and even psychological systems. And systems thinking is a sensibility — for the subtle interconnectedness that gives living systems their unique character."
Important Lessons from Systems Thinking
- Sometimes a system that we believe is failing is actually succeeding, but for a different purpose than we thought the system had. - A great example of this principle comes from My Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. In that book, Quinn uses the example of our educational system to show that when we look at a system, rather than comparing it to what we want it to do and then saying it is failing if it doesn't do that, we should instead look at what it is doing well, and then study how it is designed to do that. Then, if we wish to change the outcome, we can redesign the system for a new purpose.
Quinn shows how most of us believe the educational system is designed to create intelligent, thoughtful citizens, and because of that assumption, we often conclude that the system is failing. He argues that in reality we should instead look at what the educational system does do well, which is create a great number of people prepared to enter the lower ranks of a hierarchical workforce, and see that it is doing quite well in that respect. If we want the educational system to create intelligent, thoughtful citizens, it will have to be redesigned.
Systems Thinking can help us see that "failing" systems may really simply be designed for a purpose other than what we assume or have been told.
- Difficulties in solving problems often stem from the fact that problems do not occur in isolation, but in relation to each other. - For example, young people may join violent gangs and we may try to solve that issue by putting more police on the streets. However, the problem of youngsters joining gangs is often related to family dysfunction in the homes of those youngsters. And the family issues may be related to unemployment, and so on.
Systems Thinking can help us see that what may seem an isolated problem is actually part of an interconnected network of related issues.
- Issues relate to each other in specific ways based on feedback cycles. - In the above example, gang violence, family dysfunction and unemployment affect each other through feedback cycles. When unemployment increases, this may lead to increased stress on families and therefore greater dysfunction. The greater family dysfunction may increase the likelihood of youngsters seeking a sense of identity, security or rebellion through gangs. This type of feedback, in which an increase in one factor leads to an increase in another, is called a positive feedback cycle.
Another type of system is your heating system. In that system, as the temperature (factor 1) increases, the heat (factor 2) gets turned down, to keep the system in balance. This type of feedback, where an increase in one factor leads to a decrease in another factor, is called a negative feedback cycle.
Systems Thinking can help us see the positive and negative feedback cycles that may be affecting an issue of importance to us.
- Feedback cycles may involve delays. - It is important to be aware in these and other systems, as we attempt to optimize them, that feedback does not always happen instantly. For example, when unemployment rises, families may have some savings or unemployment insurance to live on for a while, so the family dysfunction may not increase to a high level immediately. When the temperature rises in the heating system, there may be a slight lag before the heat responds by turning down.
Another important example involves medication, where an increase in medication in the bloodstream may not lead to a decrease in symptoms immediately. Understanding these delays is important so that we don't overreact during the lag period, thinking that no change is happening, when in fact it is just delayed. For instance, if we give a person medication and they don't instantly get better, it would be dangerous to decide we need to give them more medication immediately, when in reality we simply need to wait for the medication they already received to kick in.
Systems Thinking can help us remain aware of the time delays between the onset and effects of feedback relationships.
- Attempting to solve complex issues without a systems thinking approach may lead to unintended consequences, despite our best intentions. - There are many cases where an attempted solution sounds good on the surface, yet because of feedback cycles and delays that we haven't taken into account, this "solution" may make things even worse. This concept is summed up by the common phrase that "sometimes the cure is worse than the disease". This is the case when the cure is only addressing a part or a symptom of the system, rather than creating a root solution.
Imagine a child who lacks self-esteem and therefore is doing poorly in school. His parents, with the best of intentions, may begin to put pressure on him to do better in school. However, this pressure may backfire, as the child may simply feel even worse about his failing grades and this additional stress may lead to a further decrease in grades, exactly the opposite of the outcome the parents had intended.
Systems Thinking can help us avoid unintended consequences by making us aware of how they may be created by previously unrecognized feedback cycles or delays.
- Different networks of problematic issues often take on similar patterns of feedback cycles and delays known as Systems Archetypes. - Each of the examples given - violent youth gangs, the educational system, a heating system, a patient with a particular disease or a child obtaining poor grades due to lack of self-esteem - represents part or all of a particular pattern of feedback cycles and delays. If we look at many other examples in our world - the war on drugs, starvation in the Third World, a particular difficult romantic relationship, computer email spamming, etc. - we will find that certain cases, despite superficial differences in content, are parts of similar patterns to each other.
These common patterns are known as Systems Archetypes and the various archetypes recognized by experts in system analysis and design have names such as the Limits to Growth, Shifting the Burden or Eroding Goals archetypes. For instance, alcoholism - like many addictive patterns - is a common example of a Shifting the Burden archetype in which a symptomatic "solution" to feeling badly about one's situation (drinking) is constantly used in lieu of a fundamental solution (ie: improving one's life), until, over time, the person loses the ability to focus on the fundamental solution at all. The burden is continually shifted to the attempted "quick fix" in this archetype. This same pattern can also be seen in many seemingly different, but actually systemically similar, patterns where a short term symptomatic approach gradually erodes the capacity for fundamental solutions.
Systems Thinking can help us see similarities between various types of problems by allowing us to see them in terms of common Systems Archetypes.
- Within each Systems Archetype are particular leverage points, places and methods that are most effective in resolving issues. - Once we are able to recognize situations not as isolated incidents, or even as parts of interconnected issues, but as examples of specific archetypal patterns, we can then use a known systems thinking approach that works well with the particular archetype at hand. In each archetype there are places in the system known as leverage points, at which a small change can make a big impact.
For instance, in the Shifting the Burden archetype, the leverage point is in refocusing attention on the fundamental solution, not continuing to do more of the symptomatic "solution". If the alcoholic wants to escape this pattern of feedback cycles and delays, he or she must begin to work on their fundamental life issues, rather than continuing to try to escape through the "quick fix" of drinking. By recognizing archetypes, we can apply the same mindset to wisely approaching many issues in the world, including many mentioned here.
Systems Thinking can help us find the leverage points in a problematic system at which we can most effectively create the change we want to see.
- The most effective place to act in a system for optimal results is often counterintuitive. - Often, the leverage point in a system is not where it would originally seem to be. For instance, with the child getting poor grades due to low self-esteem, it may seem sensible to put more pressure on him to get good grades. Yet the optimal solution may in fact be to show the child more acceptance and caring. This may help the child feel better about himself, take some of the pressure off, and allow him to work in more peace and improve his grades over time. It may seem counterintuitive to "reward" a child who is getting poor grades with more love and caring, and yet, at least in some cases, it may be the optimal leverage point, while more pressure may only bring about unintended consequences.
Systems Thinking can help us see why measures that may superficially seem likely to worsen the situation may, in fact, be optimal solutions.
How I Learned About Systems Thinking
Every now and then, the evidence seemed to support my belief that something fundamental really was wrong. But these glimmers of insight and confidence were too sporadic to accumulate into anything solid and comprehensible. That all changed when I read Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, as well as Quinn's other books. Finally, I realized that what I had been feeling did have a basis in reality, in science, and in history. Yet, when I would try to explain to people what Quinn's ideas were really about, it was nearly impossible to do. I hadn't yet been able to capture and name his philosophy.
A bit later, I was reading a post by Quinn on his Q & A page, and he mentioned that he had gained a following in "Systems Thinking" circles. The words stuck in my mind, but I still wasn't curious enough to seek out exactly what that meant. I later heard the term again in a number of places, and finally was encouraged to read The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge, a leader in the field of Systems Thinking who chairs the Society for Organizational Learning and teaches as a senior lecturer at MIT's Sloan School of Business. After reading Senge's book, I finally understood what it was that had made Quinn's books speak to me so deeply and how to explain his ideas - and those of other likeminded thinkers - to interested people. I finally understood Systems Thinking.
What I also understood was that what Daniel Quinn had done was apply the problem solving tools and techniques of Systems Thinking to a number of subjects, including the environment, schools, the law, and the job system. I realized that Senge's focus was applying Systems Thinking to businesses, in order to help them achieve greater, more sustainable success. And finally, I realized that Systems Thinking could be applied to nearly any field to shed more light on it and offer solutions to seemingly insoluble problems.
A Systems Thinking approach greatly informs my work with clients of my company, Emergent Associates, LLC.