systems thinking

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The term systems thinking is used in a variety of manners and contexts. There are several interrelated ideas foundational to systems thinking in general and its particular methods and tools. Systems thinking is a --

  • mindset -- for understanding how things work. This mindset is sometimes referred to as an operational perspective. See operational thinking.
  • philosophy -- that focuses on the interdependencies that exist in the world create the conditions and behaviors we face.
  • world-view -- that the foundation for understanding lies in interpreting interrelationships within systems.
  • mode of thinking -- which serves to get at the truth of how things work.

Systems thinking and levels of understanding --
This systems or operational perspective is inextricably linked to levels of understanding - events, patterns of events, systemic structures, and shared vision. Interrelationships between things form systemic structures which produce patterns of events. Understanding relates to events, the patterns they create, the systemic structures producing the events, the mental models that form the basis for the systemic structures, and the vision needed to develop new systemic structures. One level of understanding is not ""better"" than another. What is important is that the understanding exists to apply the right level of understanding the issue being dealt with. For example, if someone has been wounded by a criminal (an event), it is time to fix the wound, not time to reflect on patterns of crime or societal structures that produce crime.

Systems thinking application --
Systems thinking enables effective understanding, management, design, and modification systems. Systems thinking enables seeing complex situations and experiences as a whole. The whole cannot be seen unless it is viewed over time, from multiple perspectives, from the outside (objectively), and from the inside. Systems thinking, thinking types, systems thinking tools, and levels of understanding are all part of the overall process for understanding complex systems.

Modes of thinking --
Systems thinking includes tools and methods tailored to gaining insight into complex problems and systems. The power of systems thinking is well suited for an increasingly complex world, one of increasingly complex business models with more diverse stakeholders, customers, and suppliers which may span the world. The systems thinking also resolves conflicting elements, such as ""us"" vs. ""them"", by bringing diverse elements into one system for purposes of understanding and resolution vs. choosing between the conflicting elements.

Systems thinking is not a skill, but a collection of skills. These skills are applicable at various steps in s systems thinking process. Below is one construct (see Richmond, 2000) of types of systems thinking couched in the framework of problem identification and solving --

  • Process step: Specify problem/issue
    • dynamic thinking - reveals the patterns of behavior over time
    • system-as-cause thinking - focuses thinking on what can be done within the system to overcome the problem, rather than focusing on causes external to the system
    • forest thinking - understand the context of the system and its interrelationships; defines the relevant boundaries
  • Process step: Construct hypothesis or model (see causal loop diagram, stocks and flows diagram, and structural thinking) -
    • operational thinking - gets at the causality and the understanding of behavior to reveal the nature of the process
    • closed-loop thinking - understanding the feedback relationships between the parts of the system
    • quantitative thinking - include a quantification of all key variables, whether measureable or not
  • Process step: Test hypothesis or model
    • scientific thinking - test the models or the working hypotheses
  • Process step: Implement changes / communicate understanding

Systems thinking techniques provide for holistic inquiry of systems as contrasted to reductionistic methods of inquiry. See reductionism.

Systems inquiry --
Systems inquiry requires a starting point. This requires some sort of construct and approach for the inquiry process. Objectives of the inquiry are established. The boundaries of the thing to be inquired upon are initially established. Perspectives are developed. The initial inquiry approach is subject to modification as the inquiry proceeds and second loop learning takes place. See inquiry.

Limitations and application --
Systems thinking has its limitations. In the case of truly complex systems, where small variations in earlier in time make huge differences as time goes by and the feedback loops are impenetrable, have inherent complexity. Systems thinking does not penetrate inherently complex systems.

Systems thinking looks for patterns in complexity in those things that look complex on the surface but in fact have some simpler order below the surface. This is referred to as apparent complexity.

Systems thinking applies to those cases where apparent complexity is high and inherent complexity is low.