Systems Thinking

How does your work actually work?

The Systems Thinking Approach

In contrast to traditional analysis - breaking down the thing being studied into small pieces - the Systems Thinking approach looks outward at the interaction of that thing with other things around it.

This approach is particularly useful in complex systems - where demands act dynamically on it and responds to both negative and positive feedback effects. By looking at interactions between components we can see the bigger picture than the details of a specific part of the system.

Surely someone knows what's going on?

Students of complex systems come to realise three things:

  1. Everything is interconnected
  2. They are never going to figure out the interconnectedness
  3. This is fine

Most of us have grown up with experience of an authoritarian system: Parents, schools, employers, religious institutions. Parents, teachers and bosses had the answer, because they knew what was going on and what to do. As we ourselves adopt those roles, we realise that:

  1. No-one really knows what they're doing
  2. They are making sense of things the best they can
  3. This is fine

The Systems Thinking approach is therefore not to provide the answers, but to empower its users to embrace the unknown and the ambiguous, to allow experiments to provide the data to guide us forward.

How do we use it?

Start with where you are. What are the inputs and outputs to your situation? What is value demand (requests to do things that is our purpose) and what is failure demand (requests to rectify the problems we ourselves have caused)? Where are the bottlenecks? Who is underutilised? What experiments can we do to improve something? What do we expect to learn from that?

There are no answers. But there are lots of questions, and the asking of the questions helps find a better way.