What does systems thinking mean?Written by Mike Webster 11 August 2021
Whether it’s a matter of finding effective, definite solutions to problems, formulating a vision of the future, understanding how various factors contribute to certain outcomes or improving inclusivity across all employees in a business, systems thinking is thought process and corporate state of mind that can benefit an extensive number of specific situations and ongoing processes.
Applicable in both professional and personal circumstances, systems thinking offers a unique approach that involves breaking down the elements of a something to understand the importance of each section, and as MIT Professor of Management John Stearman claims that “The development of systems thinking is crucial for the survival of humanity”, it’s clearly worth taking seriously.
What is Systems Thinking?
A concept that acknowledges the importance of seeing the bigger picture, systems thinking identifies every element of how a process functions to understand how each component works, how they may interconnect and interact with one another and the specific context around these factors.
While traditional analysis encourages every element to be considered, systems thinking focuses more on the effect each element has on the system as a whole. It can then be used to understand how it behaves and the impact it has. If a system were to falter or entirely collapse, for example, a complete understanding of each element could help to identify the cause and process of what led to this outcome. By conducting this level of analysis early, thinking systematically can reduce the time it takes to solve the problem if the system isn’t operating effectively.
Systems thinking requires six core values. These are:
In any systems thinking approach, cause and effect is a key consideration. Each element needs to be thoroughly analysed to understand how actions lead to results and how those results can be altered to cause a different outcome in the future.
Many products, processes or even concepts require several elements. In human biology, the process of various biological elements combining to create life relates heavily to systems thinking as it could be used to understand the inception of items and ideas through the collaboration of different elements or individuals.
Feedback loops –
With every element being connected, there are various feedback loops to consider. A feedback loop is a way of using data to determine performance and identify any scope for change, and in systems thinking, there are two forms of this: balancing and reinforcing. A balancing feedback loop is where the system is equally balanced and a reinforcing feedback loop is where one or several elements are in abundance and may need to be refined in order for the system to flow more effectively.
In order to think in a systematic way, it’s important to recognise that every element is connected to one another. Rather than thinking in a linear way, the approach should be broader and acknowledge the effect some elements may have on others. For example, humans need air, food and water to survive, just as trees require carbon dioxide, sunshine and water.
Tracking the performance of a system allows for making effective changes to improve how well the system works. System performance can be analysed in one of several ways including a behaviour over time graph, a causal loop diagram, a connected circle diagram or an iceberg model.
A term that refers to the process of combining two components to create something new, synthesis plays a role in systems thinking as it encourages the concept of recognising something and its elements or the components that play a part in its conception as being one and the same.
What is an example of Systems Thinking?
As systems thinking is a broad concept, it could be applied to a wide selection of circumstances, industries and tasks. In essence, it applies to any process that requires multiple components in order for it to work. For example, systems thinking could be used to analyse human bodies or minds, cars and pieces of machinery and organisations, both big and small.
In order to explain how systems thinking can work in different settings, we’ve explained how it would work using the examples above.
Examples of systems thinking:
In the human body and mind –
Using the human body as an example of systems thinking is particularly impactful as it’s built on the fundamentals of biology. Many different components of the human body interact to cause reactions and make important processes happen. Likewise, without certain components working correctly, the human body wouldn’t operate as it should and it could even affect the health of the individual.
Although similar, the human mind works differently as it is more a case of mental and emotional effects via the brain than anything biological. However, the same methodology can be used. For instance, certain triggers could lead to different emotions and by understanding all of these potential triggers, an individual could work out how their mind works and potentially improve the state of their mental health.
In cars and pieces of machinery –
With any piece of machinery, the correct parts are needed, not only to fulfil a certain need but also to work within a specific brand or model. The same could be said for cars. As such, it’s likely that systems thinking is used in the process of troubleshooting problems with vehicles and pieces of machinery. An engineer can then understand the purpose and behaviour of every component to identify the cause of the issue and find a solution.
In organisations –
A systems thinking approach in an organisation is the concept of believing that every employee is equally as important and has a part to play in the business’ overall success. Not only does this require a systems thinking approach, but also a genuine appreciation for every member of staff. It would also need the business owner to understand exactly what every employee does and recognise their impact on the business.
Why is Systems Thinking important?
In 1972, Hungarian philosopher Ervin Laszlo wrote a book on the concept of systems thinking titled ‘Introduction to Systems Philosophy: Toward a New Paradigm of Contemporary Thought’. In summary of the concept, he said: “The notion of “system” has gained central importance in contemporary science, society and life.” He then stressed the importance of systems thinking, saying: “there can be little doubt that this concept marks a genuine, necessary and consequential development in science and world-view.” Despite being written several decades ago, the quote remains highly relevant today, with systems thinking being an applicable way of approaching a multitude of processes.
More specifically, systems thinking benefits innovation in a number of core areas, such as:
- Finding effective solutions to systemic problems
- Gauging how components are related and interact with each other
- Identifying and eliminating negative patterns
- Monitoring processes as an ecosystem with various moving parts
- Removing elements that could be causing problems or wasting time or money
- Understanding the bigger picture.