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Systems Thinking — Simplified

How can Systems Thinking help us understand the world and solve problems?


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Tealfeed Guest Blog

3 years ago | 4 min read

Systems Thinking is a way of thinking about ourselves and our place in the world. It is about understanding that the things we see in the world are all inter-connected and therefore influence each other. It is a way to look at the whole and not just the parts that make up the whole.

Systems Thinking prods us to see the deeper connections and influences in the world as we begin to identify problems and devise solutions. It helps us to not create new problems as we solve the current ones.

Watch this video to get started..

Firstly, we must see the world as made up of systems. A system is the whole that is made up of parts. Each of the parts could also be a system which is in turn made of parts. A system is defined as a collection of parts laid out in a pattern with a specific purpose. Remember, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The pattern in which the parts are laid out is the key ingredient here. It defines the relationship between the parts. For instance, an airplane is a system. It is made up of several sub-systems — aeronautical, communication, passenger comfort, etc. Each of these sub-systems has a purpose. They can be further broken down into sub-systems (i.e. their parts), each with their own purpose too.

At each level, the sub-systems work together towards a larger goal. So a system can be seen as a team of parts working together to deliver an objective (i.e. their purpose).

So here is a simple formula for System.

System = Parts + Pattern + Purpose

Here is a story of Kalen Pilkington — how she created a sustainable urban farming system by identifying and assembling parts and giving it a larger purpose.

Inspiring story, isn’t it?

Next, actions have consequences. However much we would like to think that the action — consequence causal link is linear, they are really not. It is a many-to-many link where many causes link to many effects. This means our actions, in addition to producing intended effects, also lead to unintended consequences. We need to be mindful of that as we plan and act.

To help us with these, Systems Thinking provides us with tools such as Causal Loop Diagrams, Stock-And-Flow diagrams, etc. Watch this video to learn about causal loops, reinforcement and balancing feedback loops.

TED-ED — Feedback loops in nature

Thirdly, when trying to understand a complex problem, what we observe are events. Hidden among the events are patterns. Look closely and you might find that an event, that we believe symptomises a problem, occurs regularly intervals. It is creating a pattern. Patterns are in turn created by systemic structures, which in turn were created and put in place because of our mental models.

Because, we collectively believe in something (i.e. shared mental models of the community), we put in place laws, rules, and guidelines (i.e. systemic structures). And abiding by the laws and following guidelines lead us to create patterns of behaviour. And these patterns will manifest as a series of individual events.

The important thing to realise is that events that we observe are caused by mental models, however we only get to see the events and not all the other structures that are submerged underneath it. This thinking opens up our minds that there are several points where we can intervene to solve the problem.

Fourthly, the patterns and systemic structures giving rise to patterns repeat themselves in many places. There are a fair amount of such patterns that Systems scientists have identified and codified. These are called System Archetypes. Identifying the archetypes at work when analysing a complex problem can help us identify the right solution for the problem.

Watch this video that briefly explains the common archetypes (2.38m onwards).

A Systems Story

Here is a video that beautifully explains one of the common archetypes — the tragedy of commons — how shared resources get depleted due to our greedy mental models.

Tragedy of commons — a popular System Archetype

Finally, lets get to how-to-fix systems that are broken. As we have seen, systems are complex. Wholes are made of parts. The parts are interconnected in such a way that in reality cause-effect relationships are not very linear and simple.

Events that we see as a result of these complex criss-crossing cause-effect relationships do have underneath them submerged patterns, systemic structures, that arise from mental models of the stakeholders. However, by understanding the archetypes (systemic patterns), we can start to identify points of intervention. These are called leverage points.

Leverage points are a set of intervention points in the system where a small change can deliver a large impact. Leverage points are organised in hierarchy of impact that they can deliver. There are twelve in number, starting from adjusting parameters, increasing/decreasing stock sizes, etc all the way to changing goals and mindsets. Watch this video to learn more.

Leverage points in a system — explained

And finally, we need to keep observing how our intervention affects the system. As mentioned previously, there may be unintended consequences. Observe the events, find the patterns and dig our the systemic structures. Has the system’s archetype changed? Has it done so for the better? Systems may need be constantly observed and regularly intervened to keep them at a healthy optimal state.

So, to summarize, Systems Thinking is a way of thinking about our place in this world, how this world is organised and how best to intervene and change it. It asks us to realise that the world is a system of many interconnected parts and we should look at the bigger picture to arrive at holistic solutions to our problems.

As a systems designer I am intrigued and awed by the idea of Systems Thinking and I try to incorporate elements of this paradigm into my work. And everytime I do that, I learn and improve (i.e. feedback loop :)).

This article was originally published by Srini Janarthanam on medium.

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