Systems Thinking

Systems thinking has 3 key ideas. 

1. Everything is connected. 

2. There are essential habits of mind that systems thinkers exhibit.

3. Systems have predictable but not predetermined behavior.

Everything is connected.

If there is an isolated system I don’t know about it. Figuring out where different systems start and stop can be challenging because every system has energy or material flowing in and out of it. A system can be defined as any set of parts that combine to become something different. Simple systems combine with other systems to form larger, more complex systems. Our cells are one kind of system, they combine to form tissues, tissues are organized into organs, and so on. Mapping is a useful exercise for understanding connectedness. There are different frameworks for mapping systems but the simplest approach is to name systems in a box and circle and draw arrows that represent inputs and outputs from each system. It doesn’t really matter how initial systems are defined as it often becomes apparent that the initial systems can be broken down into more than one system or that the scope of your original thinking was way too small. Once a system map is made the interconnectedness of events comes into focus and a new way of seeing the big picture emerges.

There are essential habits of mind that systems thinkers exhibit.

We all use some sort of habits of mind to make sense of the world. The good news is that they are habits, and like any habit systems thinking habits can be adopted and maintained through practice. Inquiry is the place to start. How are these two events connected? What are the parts of the system? What are the inputs and outputs? From these questions new ways of understanding the world, or mental models evolve to include deeper, more complex habits. Patterns become apparent, different perspectives are added to thought processes. 

Systems have predictable but not predetermined behavior. 

A famous first attempt at making predictions using systems modeling with computers (see Limits to Growth) was right about how different variables affected each other but was very wrong about the future. Every system behaves according to “rules” but the complexity of systems makes it hard to know how each change in the system will play out. Some simple patterns emerge in systems that are easy to recognize like balancing feedback loops and reinforcing feedback loops. These feedback loops operate all around us. The same is true for systems archetypes. Our human systems like schools and neighborhoods operate in predictable ways. The important thing to understand is that there are levers in systems that can change outcomes. We can change the future by disrupting reinforcing feedback loops or strategizing around particular archetypes.

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