Systems Thinking 101: The What and the Why

The What

For a long time now I have liked to think of Systems Thinking as actually a hard skill, as opposed to the traditional approach of making it a soft skill. Meaning, it can be taught and learned, we can measure its progress and approach it with the logical parts of our brain. Granted, some of it might come to us intuitively, I still think it is like learning how to ride a bicycle or how to draw: despite looking mysterious at first, one can use techniques to achieve mastery and use some personal components to shaping the understanding of Systems Thinking disciplines.

Disciplines, I say, because there are many ways of approaching Systems Thinking as well: it is not a black and white collection of 5 easy-peasy techniques. It resembles more a new world to discover, a new mindset to be developed, new lenses to look into life and a lifetime commitment to understanding the world around us. Yes, all that.

Because of that Systems Thinking can have an air of mystery and feel unattainable. To try and demystify that, I invite you to think of Systems thinking from at least two perspectives: language and tooling.

Systems Thinking as Language

In order to think differently it could make sense to speak differently, as language strongly influences our mental models.

There is a whole vocabulary when describing systemic behavior and this vocabulary sometimes defies conventional use of words. Saying that a system is either balancing or reinforcing is common understanding within this discipline and describes very specific behaviors within the system. It represents what to expect from inputs and outputs on the system, which in turn depends on the boundaries set for it. Another way of describing systems, instead of balancing vs reinforcing would be negative versus positive. And right there our bias would attack our minds, because we commonly learn to think of negative as bad and positive as good, but in systems thinking this sort of judgement is actually detrimental to understanding the situation at hand.

When studying systems we usually describe patterns and events and the understanding behind those words would also be a little different than the normal language would have them. We can specialize the talking on patterns when delving on system archetypes and that can be its own study. We would very much talk about loops, about feedback and many other words that might be new themselves or just used differently, but with a very clear and intentional meaning.

As we can see, yes, a whole new language for expressing how we perceive interactions.

Systems Thinking as Set of Tools

If we are thinking and speaking differently, it only makes sense that we will be using different tools to both stimulate and communicate this way of thinking and speaking. Most of these tools will be centered in visualizing systems and the relationships between its parts as well as depicting behaviors of the system in a structured way. Those structures oftentimes are cycles, or loops, a famous one being causal loop diagrams. But these systems diagrammatics are not always circular, even though they are, more often than not, dynamic depictions of the system.

However, one very important aspect that combines language and tooling is the ability to tell a story. Because systems are dynamics, thinking in pictures make less sense than thinking in animation. These seemingly static representations need to gain life through storytelling, giving life to scenarios. Worry not: It is a skill, it can be developed.

Tools can advance as far as computer simulation, fuzzy logic, queuing theories and mathematical models, but one does not need to go that far to reap the benefits of Systems Thinking applied. As with anything in Agile, we tame complexity by searching for simplicity: starting with and mastering the simplest representations and dialogues is paramount in making any advance towards complexity. That also means: try and understand small systems, small issues before trying to represent (and understand) gigantic systems with lots of cross references and conflicting powerful interactions. Tell simple stories and draw simple diagrams. Expand the knowledge together with technique.

Detail and complexity have their place. In a continuation of this series on Systems Thinking we will be tackling what makes systems, how to represent them and study them. But why should we, especially under the context of Agility for businesses and teams?

The Why

Systems are everywhere around us. We are systems ourselves and we are also inserted into systems. There is a lot of meta and recursion. The cells and organs in our bodies have an intrinsic organization and purpose that makes them a system. The society and economy are systems within which we live. But we probably heard most about systems in biology classes, with big words such as "ecosystems" or "thermodynamics" or "mechanics", for those that ventured into Physics world. And mostly, since the second half of the 20th century with computer systems: the computer themselves, the applications running on systems and now in our cellphones and video-games. That probably put Systems Thinking away from the common person and elevate its disciplines to higher ranks of scientific knowledge.

While that is true as they are common currency in the scientific field, I would wish and try to contribute for us to operate under the assumption that Systems Thinking should be used by anyone, anywhere. Whether we use this notion consciously or not, systems have been around us for a long time and in the past decades a growing body of committed individuals have worked hard to popularize its appeal, such as Peter Senge, William Braun, Daniel Kim, and Leyla Acaraglu. They remind us that systems are around ever since complexity has been around. And complexity has forever been around.

I will then repeat once more. The main reason why we should utilize more of a systemic view comes from the interpretation that complexity and systems are everywhere. If they are everywhere and if we have them in us and we operate within then, then we can try and work more effectively and proactively with them. This means, we could be able to try and anticipate, interfere with and shape results from systemic interactions. Because of my line of work and the objectives of this blog, I will definitely bring the discussion under the context of organizations, teams, change and better collaboration. What does that mean for us coaches, change agents and the likes?

Systems Thinking and organizations

How many of us can relate to immediateness in decision-making throughout organizations? How many "cost-fit" initiatives have we seen in place, aka initiatives in which a lot of budgeting is done and costs are cut without proper perspective of what innovation means and what it can do for the company, leading to lack of investments to foster actual innovation? How many "reorgs" have we been through, especially in the last ten years under the title of "digital transformation" or "agile transformation" and yet the products and services and ways of interacting with the company and customers and society remain the same? And if you look inside those companies you will probably find the structure that connects their teams and their departments as oftentimes heavy and just a different version of the preceding ineffective ones. They still talk about measuring progress (hours spent, money invested) instead of measuring success (have we hit the target?, are customers really delighted?). They still talk about resource allocation when mentioning people working in specific projects. What do you do with a resource? You move it; you swap it, stress it, you discard it. Yet another case: a knowledgeable and motivated employee that gets praised everywhere and therefore constantly overly committed to deliver, finds himself exhausted after giving so much of himself with no pause, no recharge, only to be considered an underachiever after a while. He then goes the route of either feeling demotivated and leaving the company or worse, he ends up getting fired even before noticing his own underachievement and without help to regain his initial motivation and energy level. Familiar much?

These are just a few examples in which we experience lack of systemic perspective from management in organizations. A wide-spread short-term view that stems from a dissociation phenomenon. Organizations, personified by their management hierarchy, do not see how they are inserted in the problems they face. They are contributors to the complex context in which they insert themselves, even if they fail to perceive it. But no, the cause is usually "out there", which limits opportunities for improvement and continue with the cycle of acting through blind spots. If we see ourselves as part of the problem that leverages our contribution as part of the solution as well.