The Zen of Systems Thinking

Three powerful tips for succeeding in a complex world


stacy becker

3 years ago | 5 min read

We’ve built a very complex world. Now we must learn to succeed in that complexity. The good news is that complexity is a growing field of study. The bad news is that experts have a tendency to make things even more incomprehensible.

The challenge in complexity is to find the simple, not add more complexity. In this post, I share three powerful tips for simplicity in complexity.

The uncertainty and predictability of the world require us to think and act differently. How do we do that? My previous post, What’s All the Buzz About Systems Thinking, described a popular method called systems dynamics and its limitations.

The primary limitation being — who the heck can understand it? The central idea is that if we can “see” the big system and all its interrelationships via a spaghetti diagram, we’ll know what to do.

Take and look at the diagram from my previous post: does this help you?

Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health
Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health

As an alternative to systems dynamics maps, I offer three very simple pieces of advice.

1. Start where you are

As usual with the difficult made to look easy, this piece of advice may sound inane. How can someone start from where they’re not? Look at the diagram above. Can you find yourself in it?

Here’s the deal about complex adaptive systems: you cannot control outcomes. What can you control? Only yourself. (Zen meets science.)

It’s such a beautiful paradox. In the face of enormous massively entangled systems, change is radically individual.

True story. The CEO of a hospital system gave one of his direct reports a portfolio of intractable problems — things they had worked on for years without any success. One of those problems was reducing emergency room use. The leader with the portfolio from hell set up a meeting and invited every leader in the hospital system she could think of who had any bearing on emergency room use.

At the meeting, they agreed they’d go back to their departments and try something they thought might reduce emergency room use. They would reconvene and share what they found out. The actions were uncoordinated; there was no action plan.

One person looked at the data, realized that a high percentage of emergency room visits were people requiring stitches, and arranged for treatment by primary care doctors instead.

Another noticed that cancer treatments were still being provided in the emergency room, a vestige of where the equipment was originally located, and arranged for off-site treatment. The head of medical training realized that everyone came to her with questions, creating a bottleneck. She posted a few simple rules and asked the residents to consult them instead of her.

In two weeks, the team reconvened. Emergency room visits had declined. They repeated the process a few more times until emergency room use reached a level they were comfortable with.

The lesson — start with something you can influence. Take an action you think will make a difference. Then watch and see what happens. If nothing, try something else. If something bad, try something else. If something good, then try through your next action to move things a little further in that direction.

One caveat: the emergency room efforts worked because everyone was aligned toward a shared goal. If people are working at cross-purposes, the first thing you need to do is to take action that can bring people closer into alignment.

2. Stop searching for the right answer

There isn’t one.

Complex environments are uncertain and unpredictable. If you know for sure that there is a single right answer to a problem, you aren’t operating in a complex environment. Mechanical problems have correct answers. Social problems do not.

However, in complex environments, there certainly are better and worse answers. We see this playing out with different countries’ responses to COVID-19.

We also see something else: act, learn, adapt. When faced with uncertainty, all we can do is take our best-informed action, watch what happens, and adapt accordingly. With COVID-19, hospitals experiment with treatments and procedures. Governments experiment with lockdown rules.

Schools experiment with reopening procedures. Businesses experiment with service delivery models in order to stay afloat during lockdown.

3. Ask questions

Asking questions is where “systems thinking” comes in. In complexity, no person ever sees more than a sliver of the whole. Our “best” action is one we can influence, based on as broad an understanding we can muster.

What is it that you want to change? Maybe you have an unproductive relationship with your boss. Maybe your team of essential employees is fearful and overwhelmed in the face of COVID-19. Maybe those leaving prison cannot find housing. Maybe people in your community refuse to wear masks.

The purpose of asking questions is to try to understand a problem from as many angles as possible. What makes you feel stuck? Is it rules? Fear? Incentives? Our own mindsets? Exploring multiple angles unfolds the problem, allowing us to see many paths forward that were previously hidden.

True story: a principal and her team decided to start school a month later than usual to ensure the safety of students during COVID-19. When informed, the school board overrode her decision, and ordered her to open the school…in five days! With fellow principals, she engaged in an “inquiry session.”

The group asked her questions to which she did not respond; this activity required that she remain in listening-only mode. Importantly, the questions are not to provide advice. They are meant to be the type for which there may be no immediate answer, that open new ideas and trigger new thinking, such as:

  • What are the advantages of opening next week?
  • What would students look forward to if school were to open next week?
  • What does the extra month buy you that you are unprepared for now?
  • What do people fear about this way of starting? Students? Teachers? Parents? Community? Board members? You?
  • What is the “mood” or climate you want to create as everyone comes back?
  • What are you most uncertain about? Are the answers more knowable in a month?
  • If you could ask any person on the planet for advice, who would that be?

At the end of the twenty-minute inquiry session, the principal said, “Thank you so much. I now have hope and see that there is a path forward. I realize that my own honesty and hope about the situation is a critical first step on that path.”

As the problem unfolded through the questions of her colleagues, the principal went from being stuck on the problem, turning it over and over in her own head, to having confidence that she could succeed.

Making the complex simple

So, the next time you feel stuck on a problem — no matter how big or small — don’t stress over analyzing every part of the system: take action on what you can influence, informed by seeing the problem as multi-dimensionally as you can.

And don’t beat yourself up looking for the right answer. Through inquiry, good answers will unfold. You will move from feeling despondent or frustrated to energized and confident. True story.


Created by

stacy becker

I am a big-hearted pragmatist who looks at tough problems in new ways. After years of leadership in various sectors, I have turned to complexity theory to better address the tough issues of our world. Aha! There's a reason we get stuck! Now consulting and training. Website on its way...







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