Systems Thinking

A System is an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organised in a way that achieves something; a System must consist of three kinds of things: elementsinterconnections and a function or purpose [1].  Systems Thinking is the process of understanding how things influence one another within a whole.  In Nature, systems thinking examples include ecosystems in which various elements such as air, water, movement, plants and animals work together to survive or perish.  In organisations, systems consist of people, structures, and processes that work together to make an organisation healthy or unhealthy.  A benefit of applying systems thinking to scientific or technological problems is that it can avoid the "solution" creating other problems.

Systems Thinking has been defined as an approach to problem solving, by viewing "problems" as parts of an overall system, rather than reacting to specific parts, outcomes or events and potentially contributing to further development of unintended consequences.  Systems Thinking is not a single discipline, but a set of habits or practices within a framework that is based on the belief that the component parts of a system can best be understood in the context of relationships with each other and other systems, rather than in isolation.  Systems Thinking focusses on cyclical rather than linear cause and effect.

In science systems, it is argued that the only way to fully understand why a problem or element occurs is to understand the parts in relation to the whole.  Standing in contrast to the scientfic reductionism of Descartes, and philosophical analysis, Systems Thinking proposes to view systems in an holistic manner. Consistent with systems philosophy, Systems Thinking concerns an understanding of a system by examining the linkages and interactions between the elements that compose the entirety of the system.

Science Systems Thinking attempts to illustrate that events are separated by distance and time (although ref synchronicity) and that small catalytic events can cause large changes in complex systems. Acknowledging that an improvement in one area of a system can adversely affect another area of the system, it promotes organisational communication (see section on Ba and Obeya) at all levels in order to avoid the silo effect. Systems Thinking techniques may be used to study any kind of system - natural, scientific, engineered, human or conceptual.      

With experience in delivering benefit to organisations through the application of systems thinking to strategy development and problem solving, otbSolutions can facilitate the application of systems thinking approaches in your organisation. 

The Conceptual Age and Systems Thinking [2]

We are entering a new age where the old standards of logical, sequential thinking, whilst still important, are no longer the drivers for successful companies.  As Einstein famously said "Imagination is more important than facts"; and now we are witnessing the move from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age [2].  This is driven by the universal availability of information on an unprecedented scale (Internet), automation (computers can now do many of the logical tasks that previously required "experts", and the growth of Asia, whereto most skilled, logical thinking tasks can be outsourced at a fraction of the local cost in the West.  What is needed is people with right-brain skills to be creative, take an holistic view, and to coordinate outsourced, left-brain activities. otbSolutions can help companies navigate this new territory in ways that may be difficult fro them to do effectively in-house.

[1] "Thinking in Systems" by Donela H Meadows, Earthscan (2009)

[2] "Whole Brain Thinking" by Daniel H Pink Riverhead (2005)