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Home > Organizational Basics
Start Here: What is Systems Thinking?
by Bob Powell, 6/30/04
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What's a System?
Structure Determines Behavior
Systems Have a Mind of Their Own
Dynamic Complexity and Learning
Dynamic Complexity Examples
Dealing with Dynamic Complexity is Difficult
Systems Thinking is Practical
Insightful Quotes about Systems Thinking


What's a System?

Living beings, organizations, and societies are systems.

Systems thinking is seeking to understand system behavior by examining "the whole," instead of by analyzing the parts. To do so we examine the "structure" of the system.

The structure of the system includes the flows, the stocks, the connections between the stocks and flows, and the information links from the stocks to the flows. That is, we observe the stocks to guide adjustment of the flows.

In a manufacturing setting, an example of flows and stocks might be "widgets produced per unit time" and the "number of widgets in inventory" at a given time, respectively. The flows flow into and out of the stocks and there are information links from the stocks to the flows.

Think of filling a glass of water: we observe the level of the water in the glass and adjust the flow as we fill it, shutting off the flow when full. The interdependencies and interactions among the stocks & flows create feedback loops, a key aspect of structure (absent the feedback loop, we'd overfill the glass). And structure determines of behavior.


Structure Determines Behavior

A key principle of system dynamics is that system behavior is determined primarily by its internal structure, not by external influences. While external forces do affect system behavior, we first look for how the system itself is designed to exhibit that behavior.

If the chosen system boundary does not exhibit the behavior, we expand the boundary.


Systems Have a Mind of Their Own

Leaders can have all the Vision and Mission in the world, but they won't be leaders until they examine the structure of the system. From that they can understand behaviors and design policies to affect them. 

Here's a paper on Systems Thinking Leadership and another on Causal Loops to Action

A "Far Side" cartoon by Gary Larson illustrates this.

It shows two horn-helmeted Vikings looking forward from the dragon-headed prow of their armored vessel. Behind them are oarsmen on each side of the deck: big, burly men on the left and slight, skinny guys on the right. One Viking says to the other, "I'’ve got it, too, Omar … a strange feeling that we’'re just going in circles."

These Vikings may have a well-defined mission and vision, but they must turn around to look at the structure of the system to understand the behavior they'’re experiencing.

Another example is that a bell rings because it’s designed to ring, not simply because it’s struck. Most tables don'’t "ring like a bell" when we strike them. They go "thunk" and don’'t ring because their structure isn’'t designed to ring.

The same is true for organizations and societies, we must understand the structure of the system to understand their response to external influences; and then we must modify structure and policies to get the desired results. When things have gone badly in our society, it’s most often because the system was designed for things to go badly --… the system was a "bell waiting to be struck" -- and not properly designed to produce the desired behaviors. So it’'s not that external influences do not affect system behavior, it’'s that first we look for how the system itself may be creating (or will create) behavior.

So our Mission and Vison may be inspiring, but unless the structure of the system supports them, it can make it very difficult to impossible to pursue that Mission and reach that Vision..


Dynamic Complexity and Learning

Approaches such as TQM and Exponential Process Improvement (described on this site) are practical and indispensable for problems that have independent and separable causes ("simple" problems).

But many of our problems aren't simple; they're actually combinations of interdependent problems. We call them "messes" because they have multiple feedbacks and long delays. When there are major inequalities of economic & political power, we call them "wicked messes" that can be virtually impossible to correct. This is why inequality leads to societal dysfunction.

As humans, we're aware of our limitations in handling detail complexity (keeping track of lots of data) in our heads. So we use spreadsheets and invest billions of dollars in Information Technology. But we're generally unaware that we have just as much difficulty dealing with dynamic complexity.

Humans have not evolved to handle dynamic complexity.

In systems thinking terms, there are Problems, Messes, and Wicked Messes:

- Problem: 2 + 2 = 4
- Messes: problems so interrelated that you cannot do just one thing -- everything seems to affect everything else.
- Wicked Messes: Messes with inequalities of political and economic power seem to be intractable.

What we've got in the fight between corporatism and democracy is definitely a "wicked mess". It's brute economic & political power against democracy.

The U.S. has hit the trifecta:
Oligarchy is rule by the few.
Plutocracy is rule by the wealthy.
Corporatocracy is a society governed or controlled by corporations.
We have all three ... but not democracy.

Trump's cabinet picks prove it.


Dynamic Complexity Examples

To illustrate, driving a car is relatively easy when sober. But with too much to drink, there's a long delay between beginning to go off the road and perceiving it. And there's even more delay before reflexes kick in to make the needed correction, which is often an over-correction.

So in our society, when we encounter delayed or even missing feedback, we have the same problem as an intoxicated driver. While drunk driving is illegal, there's no law against organizations and societies engaging in equivalent behavior.

But there should be, because the cost is high. Delays cause similar late and over-corrections in our projects, our organizations, and our national economy. Because they're dynamically complex, we "drive" them as if intoxicated. Like drunk drivers, we weave along the road, taking longer to reach our destination or not getting there at all.


Dealing with Dynamic Complexity is Difficult

We need the lens of systems thinking and the tools & methods of system dynamics to deal with dynamic complexity, just as we require computers, databases and software to deal with detail complexity. Whereas detail complexity is keeping track of and making sense of lots of data, dynamic complexity is making sense of behavior in systems with multiple feedbacks with long delays. Though feedback and delays are everywhere, we're generally as unaware of them as we are of the air we breathe.

In fact, if the relevant feedback is missing, flawed, or not available in a timely manner, organizations and societies fail to learn at all ... or even learn the wrong thing, engaging in what system dynamicists at M.I.T. call "superstitious learning."

Organizations and societies must deal with similar delays and missing or defective feedback. By the time we realize something is wrong, decide what to do about it, do it, and then wait to see the results, months or even years can pass.


Systems Thinking is Practical

So to practically deal with these kinds of problems, that is to get the desired results, organizations must use systems thinking. That is, they must understand and make explicit the interdependent feedbacks in the system that are driving behavior and design feedbacks and measures that improve performance.

That's why systems thinking is practical. It helps us learn together about the complex problems we face and design systems that work.

"There's nothing so practical as a good theory." Kurt Lewin


Insightful Quotes about Systems Thinking

The power of "the whole":

"The compatibility between the parts and their reinforcing mutual interactions create a resonance, a force, which will be an order of magnitude higher than the sum of the forces generated by the separate parts.
Systems Thinking, Jamshid Gharajedaghi

If the systems approach seems unnecessary, please keep in mind:

"Acceptable ideas are competent no more, but competent ideas are not yet acceptable. This is a dilemma of our time."
Stafford Beer

Conventional Wisdom:

"Conventional wisdom is like an old guard; it would rather die than surrender." Systems Thinking, Jamshid Gharajedaghi

On mental models:

"The inertia of culture is manifested by public and private images acting as filters, developing a selective mode of reception. This tunes the receptors for particular messages. Those consistent with the image are absorbed and reinforced, while contradictory and antagonistic ones have no significant effect. This phenomenon, although an impediment to change, acts as a defense mechanism and structure maintaining function.

Furthermore, since truth is commonly identified with simplicity and comprehensibility, what one does not understand is simply rejected as false." Systems Thinking, Jamshid Gharajedaghi

If this seems complicated, please keep in mind:

"My worry when executives say, 'Keep it simple stupid,' is that they're underestimating the complexity of their own organizations and environments."
From "Sense and Reliability, A Conversation with Celebrated Psychologist Karl E. Weick", Harvard Business Review, April 2003.


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