WHAT WE MEAN
WHEN WE SAY 'SYSTEM' AND 'SYSTEMS THINKING'
Talking about 'systems' and 'systems thinking' is a tricky business. What exactly do we mean by the word 'system'? What do we mean when we say 'systems thinking'? Answers to these questions vary by field, occupation and school of thought. For our purposes here--and as a pre-emptive strike to any confusion and wondering--we offer the following working definitions.
WHAT WE MEAN BY 'SYSTEM' is...
...two or more interconnected parts that work together for some purpose. Systems usually have a boundary, and often contain subsystems. While there are many kinds of systems, our focus here is on living systems.
Living systems and their characteristics
Living systems include:
Although the above systems differ in many ways, they have several characteristics in common.
- Relationships between the parts include feedback processes, which create patterns of change (growth, decline, oscillations) over time. The U.S. stock market is an example of this.
- They have inputs and outputs to their systems. Think about changes in an organization when new hires come in (inputs), and/or senior people leave (outputs).
- Energy, information, and other things flow through their systems.
- They are dynamic--that is, ever-changing. (Sometimes the changes are slow because of delays in the system. Consider the world's population growth over the last century.)
WHAT WE MEAN BY 'SYSTEMS THINKING'
Systems thinking is a host of thinking skills and tools--diagrams, analytical questions, reflective questions--that help us to better understand living systems and their characteristics.
Here's one way to use Systems Thinking with an organizational issue.
The Issue: Let's say there's a creative design team...
in a small company...
...whose performance has decreasing steadily for the last year. They used to steadily generate innovative concepts but their creativity seems to have dried up.
Systems Inquiry: Some questions we might ask:
- What's the pattern of performance over the last month, quarter, year? (looking for patterns, considering different time horizons)
- What do you think are some of the factors contributing to the decline of creativity? How are they connected? (looking for the 'parts' of the system, and to understand the relationship between the parts)
Reflective Group Conversation: Thinking together about the systems inquiry may reveal insights that no one person would be able to see alone. In this case, one team member might say,
"Personally, I think I'm not feeling innovative because I'm not collaborating on anything with anyone." Building on that, another team member might offer:
"It's true. Ever since we started working on our own specialized projects, we've been so busy with those that we don't have time for team projects. Those are the creative ones..."
A Diagram: After further dialogue, a diagram might develop to show the relationships between some of the main factors involved. (This is the beginning of a 'causal loop diagram'.)
The loop below suggests that employees are less creative when working alone and more creative when working together. The recent independent project assignments have been unintentionally decreasing collective capacity for innovation.
Analysis & Refinement: Reading the diagram may lead to more questions, clarifications and insights. This is important to make sure the diagram accurately represents everyone's best understanding of the situation.
Then they can decide on what to do about it.
Taking Action and Checking Results: Based on the conversation and analysis, decisions about actions can be made. These might be:
- moving to more team-based work; and/or
- developing a method for sharing ideas with each other in support of their independent work.
Whatever the action(s) chosen, the group can agree to come back together after a month to report on results on innovation, check the diagram with their real-life experiences, and make adjustments if necessary.
“Learning without reflection is a waste, reflection without learning is dangerous.”