Systems Practitioner 1: Why Systems Thinking


Despite many efforts to deal with the various complex issues facing our societies, plans and problem solutions are seldom long lasting, because we, as individuals, and our leaders are most likely to fall into the trap of using traditional linear thinking. It is natural and easy, but does not usually deliver long-term solutions in the context of highly complex modern communities.

There is an urgent need for innovative ways of thinking and a fresh approach to dealing with the unprecedented and complex challenges facing our world.

We are surrounded by systems, and are, indeed, a part of systems. Humans are not, however, in the habit of either seeing this or of thinking systemically.

Even when we can see that ‘something is wrong with the system’, we tend to analyse the problem by breaking the system down to smaller and smaller parts looking for that which is faulty, until we begin to lose sight of the interactions between all the elements

This type of thinking is a logical consequence of the sheer difficulty of observing and interpreting the actions and reactions of people or things synthetically (or holistically).

That is, it is mentally easier to break a thing down to inspect individual components than to study the component and its relationship to other components simultaneously.

Linear thinking might be satisfactory if you are deciding where to build a house if there are no councils and no environmental regulations.

And powering modern economies would be easy if we could burn oil and coal without consequence.

But these activities, like all activities, have consequences.

Additionally, humans instinctively understand the importance of systems and their parts. What we do not instinctively do in society at large is to regularly solve problems by considering the whole system, tending to focus instead on the part that appears to be malfunctioning.

Thus, governments attempt to control obesity by encouraging exercise or influencing food choices without also considering food culture, city planning, pet ownership, economic pressures, advertising, agriculture, human nature, serving portions, convenience, the availability of time for food preparation or other health issues that inhibit activity. Or they try to save endangered species by establishing national parks with porous boundaries which are already full of feral animals.

The lack of systemic management and cross-sectoral communication and collaboration are not new problems. There are seminars, retreats and courses that
focus on finding solutions and entire books have been written on these problems. However, little has been done that is new or has proved able to both overcome the barrier to communication caused by the differing mental models of the world and to devise systemic management strategies towards complex problems.

In addition, governments and business institutions are under pressure to make the right investment decisions in the face of a continually changing world.

Policy makers, managers and leaders today are expected to deliver innovative solutions to cope with increasing change and uncertainty.

In order to govern our complex society towards resilient technical, economic and social developments there is an urgent need to step outside our collective ‘comfort zone’ and to develop new ways of thinking and acting in the interest of our future.

It is essential for current and future managers and leaders, and any citizen of our society, to be equipped with new ways of thinking (systems thinking) to deal with complex problems in a systemic, integrated and collaborative fashion. That is, working together in identifying and dealing with root causes of issues rather than focusing on short-term fixes.