Thinking in systems – because we live in them


Systems thinking is a very important aspect of being strategic. To be able to see things from above, and from below; to make the connections between different drivers of the system to identify the centres of gravity of a recurring problem; to fix the true cause of the problem, so that it does not recur, these are some of the important element of systems thinking, and I invite you to check out the process in the related posts.

Related: New Systems Thinking

I will not repeat previous posts here, but would like to concentrate on certain truths about systems and the implications they hold for us, leading us to understand better why we need to embrace systems thinking.

1. The world is non-linear

Perhaps as a result of our education, or oversimplification, we assume that the world we live in is linear; that a cause will lead to an effect, and change the inputs for the cause, and you get a concomitant change in the effect. The fact of the matter is that, it is not. The world we live in is interconnected, such that the output of the system, can itself become its inputs. Hence, there is no predictability; at least not in a linear sense. We need to plot the elements of the system, the interconnection of these drivers, so that we can find the centre of gravity of the system, and use that for the solution.

2. It is simpler than you imagine

A complex system is not a complicated one. And a complex situation can often be solved by simple solutions. The way to get there is to visualize the system, the way the different drivers connect with one another, and the effect a change in inputs on one leads to a change in the whole system. By drawing out this non-linear system diagram, one can step back, and see the connections that we can impact, and focus on them. We don’t have to solve the system as a whole, but focus our efforts on the key centres of gravity.

3. It takes longer than you think

Because there are many different linkages in a system, a change on one end might take time to pass through the whole system, resulting in a change in output over time. Take this simple example: when you enter into the shower in the morning, and turn on the shower, the water is almost icy cold! You get a shock, and then you turn the knob to the hot position. Nothing happens for a while, and then suddenly, scalding water is gushing at you, forcing you to turn the knob to the other end, fluctuating the temperature until you finally end up at the centre, where you first started out. Because a system doesn’t change instantaneously, there are delays; and these delays cause us to underestimate the time required to achieve outcomes. Research has shown that we underestimate delays by a factor of three; i.e. in reality, things require three times longer to achieve than we estimate.

4. Bounded rationality

Sometimes, even when we know that we are in a non-linear system, we try to bound it with assumptions to make it linear. Scientifically speaking, this is possible. However, in doing this, we limit, or bound, the system to very narrow confines, such that while the system is linear within these bounds, the assumptions are so limiting that it does not really exist, or is sustainable. Bounded rationality is great within the bounds, but do we know when we are already operating outside these bounds? It is better to accept that we operate within a non-linear system, rather than to confine it within narrow, linear confines.

5. Resistance to change

As a system is more interconnected, it becomes more resistant to change. The opposing forces within the system will resist the system from moving to a new level. This resistance is both a good and a bad thing. Obviously when we are trying to improve and level up, the old bounds will keep the system in status quo. This is the reason why change management in an organisation is so difficult. The resilience of the system prevents it from adopting new operations. Yet, on the flip side, if the system is humming well, it also can resist the change to bring the system down. The key again, is to find the centre of gravity, and use that to move the system to a new level.

Conclusion

Good visualization tools are necessary for one to understand the construct of the system, the connection of drivers. Some drivers will reinforce the system, while others will hinder it. These opposing push-pull factors keep the system in stasis. But reduce the impact of hindering drivers, and increase the influence of reinforcing ones, and you can move the system to a higher plane.

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