Systems Thinking

SYSTEMS THINKING 1 - Introduction

  1. Definition

    Systems Thinking is a management philosophy that aims to solve or anticipate problems within a commercial operation, public service or charitable organisation or else improve their function. This is achieved by successive processes of holistic analysis and synthesis using a range of largely graphical techniques. The characterisation of the "system" in question extends beyond the individual human, mechanical and computer based processes required to fulfil its objectives and will often include formal and informal interactions, information flows, policies, goals, rewards and assessment systems. This website also contains information on some more advanced practical issues together with a Systems Thinking case study.

  2. Techniques

    The choice of Systems Thinking study techniques employed will generally include: causal loop diagrams, conceptual modelling, process mapping and organisation charts.

    Three men

    Other techniques often employed include: soft systems methodology, mind mapping, game theory, Ishikawa diagrams, morphological analysis, risk analysis charts, and computer simulation

  3. Objective

    The Systems Thinking approach aims to create a dynamic representation of the enterprise or situation under consideration. This model will contain feedback loops and would aim to simulate the consequences of differing internal and external influences. These feedback loops would be of two basic types: reinforcing, or else negative (also known as balancing). Population growth is an example of reinforcing feedback (which ultimately must lead to unsustainable consequences). The operation of a thermostat is an example of negative feedback.

  4. Other Study Elements

    • The definition of the boundaries of the system under consideration, will generally be open, (i.e. having links with their external environment) rather than closed (very rarely encountered)
    • The choice of personnel to carry out the study. Given the overarching nature of a Systems Thinking study, this will generally either be the head of the organisation or else a person or persons operating with the head's full support and authority
    • As with most organisational studies, each level of stakeholder can provide different perspectives and types of information. Leaders will know more about corporate objectives, external pressures and longer term trends. Mid range staff will know about information flows, organisational conflicts and past problems and initiatives. New and junior personnel can provide insights into (sometimes uncomfortable) front line realities.
  5. Value and Challenges

    The Systems Thinking approach can prove a useful precursor to more traditional investigations, or else a cathartic solution finder for persistent longer term problems that have an organisational significance. However the inherent challenges of a Systems Thinking approach often lie in:

    • fully characterising the social interactions within the system
    • establishing the appropriate boundaries for the study area (e.g. should social and environmental impacts be included).

    In addition there may be practical issues in a particular study, including:

    • project drift
    • time sink; and
    • stakeholder alienation

    These arise from the inherent difficulties in establishing precise objectives and time scales and the use of unfamiliar and non-intuitive techniques. The risk of these can be reduced by securing involvement and commitment by formulating and presenting generalised overviews and impressions before drilling down.

  6. History

    The concept of a holistic consideration of natural and man-made systems has been associated with many famous historical polymaths like Leonardo Da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin and Charles Sanders Peirce. The modern interpretations of Systems Thinking owe much to the work of a 20th century polymath, the Austrian biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1901-1972). His early work focused on the natural world and biology. But with the development of electronic computing in the 1940s and the progressive annexation of the word "system" to describe computer based processes, he became increasingly frustrated with what he saw as a fragmentation of the sciences.

    In consequence, the physicist, the biologist, the psychologist and the social scientist are, so to speak, encapusulated in their private universes, and it is difficult to get word from one cocoon to the other. Others have used Bertalanffy's General Systems Theory ideas as a foundation for a variety of differing Systems Thinking approaches. These include Kenneth E. Boulding (1910-1993), Jay W. Forrester (1918-2016), W. Ross Ashby (1903-1972), Anatol B. Rapoport (1911-2007), Peter M. Senge (1947 -) and Peter Checkland (1930-).