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Systems Thinking

This is nothing more, or less, than the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything - and no it isn't 42.

It is about seeing things holistically and understanding and treating the whole system, rather than just parts of it. And it applies to social systems, such as businesses, or politics, as well as engineered systems.

Most people tend to be linear thinkers and link cause and effect. In fact we are trained to in Root Cause Analysis. However this can lead to problems, because it has not been realised that what we thought was a very simple system is in fact part of a bigger, more complex system, that may have feedback loops and non-linear responses, leading to side effects and unintended consequences.

Thus systems thinking is a way of trying to predict and avoid unintended consequences.

History

It has several roots, but it came to most people's attention with the publication of the book 'The Fifth Discipline' by Peter Senge.

In it he describes five disciplines that are necessary in order to be a "learning organization":

  1. "Personal mastery is a discipline of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of focusing our energies, of developing patience, and of seeing reality objectively."
  2. "Mental models are deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures of images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action."
  3. "Building shared vision - a practice of unearthing shared pictures of the future that foster genuine commitment and enrolment rather than compliance."
  4. "Team learning starts with dialogue, the capacity of members of a team to suspend assumptions and enter into genuine thinking together."
  5. "Systems thinking - The Fifth Discipline that integrates the other four."

He also introduced many people to new tools, such as Causal Loop Diagrams, as a way of showing feedback and reinforcing and balancing loops.

System Dynamics

A related discipline is System Dynamics, which is an approach to understanding the nonlinear behaviour of complex systems (especially non-linear, dynamic systems) over time using stocks and flows, internal feedback loops and time delays. It was invented during the mid-1950s by Professor Jay Forrester of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His initial goal was to determine how his background in science and engineering could be brought to bear, in some useful way, on the core issues that determine the success or failure of corporations. This led him to develop ways of modelling the corporation as a dynamic system.

Comment

Systems Thinking and System Dynamics are powerful approaches that we will be using more of in the future, so watch this space.

In the meantime just think about how many times politicians of any persuasion decide to do something that does not work because they are driven by dogma. We think that before any MP is allowed to take his seat in parliament he should pass a course in Systems Thinking.

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