What is Systems Thinking?

I’m often asked, What is Systems Thinking?

Systems thinking is an approach to understanding how something works and behaves, by focusing on its purpose, rather than focusing on the parts it is made up of. We know this from our everyday life, yet often it is so much part of how we see things that it can be difficult to realise. Systems thinking reminds us to always keep the whole in mind, the overall purpose of the system, as well as regarding the system parts.

For instance, looking at gears, springs, dials, and some long rectangular parts laid out on a table, it can be hard to determine how this thing will behave, unless you already recognize it as a clock (the whole). And once you realise it is a clock, you might visualise putting the parts together in your head. But to make a functional clock, we also need to figure out the correct arrangement of the different parts. Which parts connect with which parts? How all the different parts are affecting each other, so that the clock behaves correctly to tell time over a longer period (the purpose). Not only twice a day.

In other words, in systems thinking we are concerned with how the parts of a system interact with each other, in order for them to function as a whole. We know that the purpose of a system, or its function, is a property of the whole. The different parts in isolation do not have this property. Just as a gear or a dial in a clock won’t be able to tell time on their own.

So what is a system?

Donella Meadows defines a system as “an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organised in a way that achieves something.” From this definition, we can derive some properties of a system. The function or purpose is something to be achieved, for instance telling the time. We recognize elements as parts of a system, like gears and dials in a clock. And we can call how the elements are connected, organised and impact each other as their relationships. Implied in this definition we also have the systems boundary, in that it is a set of elements.

Not all systems have as clear a boundary as a clock. For instance, what is the boundary of a school? Is it the buildings, the teachers and pupils, or maybe the curriculum? The boundaries we set will be determined by what we assume as the purpose. By focusing on what the purpose is, we get a defined boundary, and we are drawn to consider both the elements AND their relationships between them in order to achieve this purpose.

What is Systems Thinking tango

An example of a system

Let’s consider a couple dancing the tango as a system. And by remembering that it takes two to tango, we have already defined the boundary.

The elements are the two persons. Each of them knows how to dance, through their own knowledge about different figures and moves, and a lot of practice.

The relationship in this system is how they respond to each other’s moves. The lead might start a forward motion, and the follower’s foot will instantly move backwards in a dancing step. This allows the lead to continue the forward motion completing the dancing step. We see they are mutually dependent on each other to perform this dance. If they act completely independent of each other, they will soon crash or fall over.

Notice also that the purpose (dancing the tango) is an emergent property of the relationship between the elements, not a property of the elements themselves. Bringing us back to the expression, it takes two to tango.

How can we use Systems Thinking in our organisations? 

Let’s now have a look at someone in a leadership position that wants to delegate decisions to their departments. To ensure alignment they then give them department goals. A common challenge that can happen then is that you often get more conflicts and politics between departments due to conflicting goals. The leadership might then try to give the departments even more rigid goals to encourage alignment. Sometimes they might even interfere in decisions made. This again might lead to even more politics in the departments, to win the leadership over to “their side” to meet their department’s goals. In other words, we get the opposite of what we intend.

At surface level it might seem that delegating leads to egocentric behaviour, or that our middle managers are prone to positioning and politics to put their own department forward. If we look at this from a Systems thinking perspective, we might see that the structures driving this unwanted behaviour is not necessarily egocentric, but goal oriented. They probably have the best intentions to deliver the best results from their department. The problem is that the different elements (departments) are encouraged to optimise their part, and in doing so they will need to reduce their focus on the overall purpose of the organisation. In essence, we are reducing the organisation to become merely an aggregate of each department’s results, instead of recognising the interdependence between them to get business outcomes and live up to the organisation’s purpose. 

what is systems thinking visual

Seeing the world through new eyes…

Patterns like this are quite common. However, it can be hard to notice them and make good interventions when we are entrenched in day-to-day activities. In Systems Thinking, we use tools like the Iceberg model and Causal Loop Diagrams to get below the surface and start working to unveil the patterns, structures and mental models that drive organisational behaviour. Being able to map out how the system’s parts interact and influence each other, with feedback loops and delays, gives us a different perspective, better understanding, and more powerful leverage to get unstuck and get better outcomes. 

Using the Systems Thinking approach as part of Systems Coaching is a great way to help organisations and teams to improve, align their efforts, and thus reach their common goals. We know already that focusing on purpose has an aligning effect. By using Systems Thinking as a coaching tool, we help them raise awareness of what might be driving behaviour in their team or organisation, uncovering leverage points that will release potential and achieve better business outcomes.

Find out more about Systems Thinking for yourself

Join us for our ICAgile accredited Systems Thinking and Coaching course. During this highly interactive, PowerPoint-free course, you will learn:

  • how to work with and coach complex systems and a variety of systems coaching approaches
  • how to work with your client as a system
  • tools and techniques to help systems move into action
  • ethics (along with an ethics framework for decision-making)
  • about your own personal biases
  • make a plan to grow your inner capacity as a systems coach
  • create a coaching plan for a client

By taking this Systems Coaching course, you will discover a new way of thinking and coaching organisations as well as how to effect the necessary changes needed for survival, growth, innovation, and delivery in today’s rapidly changing and complex world.

Curious about Agile ways of working? We answer your most frequently asked questions here.

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