Systems Practitioner 2: What is System Thinking?


The story of ‘the six blind men and an elephant’ has slightly different versions in different cultures. The story goes like this: Once upon a time, there lived
six blind men in a village. One day the villagers told them, ‘Hey, there is an elephant in the village today.’ They had no idea what an elephant was. They decided, ‘even though we would not be able to see it, let’s go and feel it anyway’. All of them went to where the elephant was standing. Every one of them touched the elephant:

  • ‘Hey, an elephant is a pillar’, said the first man who touched his leg.
  • ‘Oh, no! It is a rope’, said the second man who touched the tail.
  • ‘Oh, no! It is a huge snake’, said the third man who touched the trunk.
  • ‘It is a big hand fan’, said the fourth man who touched the ear.
  • ‘It is a huge wall’, said the fifth man who touched the belly.
  • ‘It is a solid pipe’, said the sixth man who touched the tusk of the elephant.

The reason each of them was experiencing it differently is because each one of them touched a different part of the elephant. In other words, each of them had a partial truth. The elephant has all the features that each of them described, but isn’t fully what they described unless we combine all of their answers.

Only when each individual learns that they are part of a system, touching upon truth at some point, but probably not touching upon the total systemic truth, will each teammate seek out alternative perspectives.

Many times, disagreements are not really disagreements at all, but just individuals seeing or feeling a different aspect of the system. Revealing a portion of the truth, that only when combined yields the whole truth.

In other words, ‘the behaviour of a system cannot be known just by knowing the elements of which the system is made’.

However, this is still a prevailing philosophy, or ways of doing things, in our society. That is, when one wants to understand a system, there is a common tendency to break it into parts and study each part separately.

There are various definitions of a system. For example:

  • ‘A system is a way of looking at the world’.
  • ‘A system is a collection of parts that interact with one another to function as a whole’.
  • ‘A system is a set of elements or parts that is coherently organised and interconnected in a pattern or structure that produces a characteristic set of
    behaviours, often classified as its ‘function’ or ‘purpose’’.
  • ‘Simply defined, a system is a complex whole the functioning of which depends on its parts and the interactions between those parts’.
  • ‘A system is more than the sum of its parts – it is the product of their interactions’.

It is important to note that a collection is also composed of a number of parts, but they are just ‘thrown’ together and are not interconnected. A system must consist of:

  • Elements or parts,
  • The interconnectedness and interactions between these parts, and
  • A function or purpose

Examples of systems: A football team; the digestive system; a school; a city; a corporation; an animal; a tree; a forest, etc.

A forest is a larger system that encompasses subsystems of trees and animals.

Similarly, your body is a large system that consists of various subsystems.

For instance, the digestive system includes elements such as teeth, enzymes, stomach, and intestines. They are interrelated through the physical flow of food, and through an elegant set of regulating chemical signals. The function of this system is to break down food into its basic nutrients and to transfer those nutrients into the bloodstream (another system) while discarding unusable wastes.

What is systems thinking?

Different scholars define systems thinking slightly differently, for example:

  • ‘Systems thinking is a way of looking at, learning about, and understanding complex situations’.
  • ‘Systems thinking is a way of seeing and talking about reality that helps us better understand and work with systems to influence the quality of our lives’.
  • ‘Systems thinking is a big idea – the idea that you really can understand and tame the complexity of the real world by seeing things in the round, as a
    whole’ .
  • Systems thinking is a ‘new way of thinking’ to understand and manage complex problems.

In beliefs about the relationship between humans and the rest of the natural world, in philosophical understandings of the universe, or medicine and healing, we see numerous examples of cultures which have, throughout history, operated with a ‘holistic view’, seeing things as a whole or a system; this is the essence of systems thinking. The following examples clearly illustrate the centuries-old existence of systems thinking in many cultures.

Australian indigenous cultures (the oldest continuing cultures in the world) have a deep connection with the land that is expressed in their stories, art and dance. For them, country is a word for all the values, places, resources, stories and cultural obligations associated with that area and its features. It describes the entirety of their ancestral domains.

Systems concepts have also been present in the thinking and philosophy of Maori people in New Zealand. These indigenous people highlight the importance of the ‘Earth Mother’ and the ‘Sky Father’ and perceive that everything in the universe is connected.

For millennia, Native Americans have employed traditional healing modalities that are very old in methodology and holistic in nature. This ancient holistic approach is still used today by many Native Americans to resolve health care problems.

Eastern philosophy has evolved a unique, systemically non-linear and holistic worldview. For example, ancient Chinese philosophers believed that everything in the universe was made up of two forces called ‘yin’ and ‘yang’. This reflects not only the collective wisdom of ancient Chinese people about the fundamental features of the universe, but also influences the way of metaphysical thinking of subsequent Chinese in various schools or movements.

Reductionism is a concept in philosophy that claims a description of properties in a complex system can be ‘reduced’ to the lower-level properties of the
system’s components.

However, Western thinking was heavily built upon three fundamental pillars, namely:

  • Greek reductionism, separation of mind and matter
  • Which led to the separation of mind and body advocated by René Descartes
  • And a deterministic-monotheistic worldview originated by Isaac Newton

René Descartes taught Western civilization that the thing to do with complexity was to break it up into component parts and tackle them separately. This is still the prevalent mode of thinking in the West.

Systems thinking is not a new concept. It is not easy to identify the precise beginning of the systems thinking field, as the beginning is a matter of perspective.

For example, Midgley suggests that the field and study of systems began in the early 20th century with either Alexander Bogdanov or Ludwig von Bertalanffy.

It is widely acknowledged in the literature that Checkland and Senge also proposed influential systems thinking approaches.

Systems thinking is a very broad field.

Sherwood concludes that it would be impossible to cover all of its associated tools, techniques, methods and approaches in a single document. Understandably, there have been various books and papers written on the topic of systems thinking.

The application of systems thinking has been evident in many diverse fields and disciplines such as, to mention but a few, management, business, decision making and consensus building, human resource management, organisational learning, health, commodity systems, agricultural production systems, natural resource management, environmental conflict management, education, social theory and management, food security and population policy, sustainability, and complexity management.

Amongst the vast number of publications on systems thinking, Peter Senge’s book, ‘The Fifth Discipline’ is described as ‘bestselling’, ‘more than 1 million in print’ and ‘one of the seminal management books of the past seventy-five years’. Senge describes what he believes are the five new component technologies that are gradually converging to innovate learning organisations, namely

  • Systems Thinking
  • Personal Mastery
  • Mental Models
  • Building Shared Vision and
  • Team Learning

He emphasises how important it is that the five disciplines develop as an ensemble and points out the challenges of integrating new tools, rather than ‘simply apply them separately’.

This is why systems thinking is the fifth discipline – ‘the discipline that integrates the disciplines, fusing them into a coherent body of theory and practice’.

Apart from the millions that read this book, why is this ‘Fifth Discipline’ not yet absorbed into everyday decision making or implementation? Why is the journey from theory to impact so difficult?

In spite of its extensive application in various fields, systems thinking has mostly been used and applied by systems scientists and some academics.

The application of systems thinking by policy makers, managers, practitioners, and ordinary people remains limited. This has been attributed, but not limited to, several factors including the ‘difficulty to sell systemic thinking’, systems thinking is not yet a phrase in general use, it is a frequently misunderstood term meaning many things to many people, the emphasis in formal education is evidently placed on events, parts, and isolated processes rather than systemic relationships, and the bulk of systems education to date has been focused on training specialists.

In addition, the diverse schools of systems thoughts create confusion about the systems thinking concept. There is an urgent need to make systems and interconnected thinking become popular, or ‘unremarkable’ as suggested by Allen, and easy to understand by all, i.e., become ‘a common language’ as proposed by Zhu or ‘absorbed into scientific research, in the same way that statistics, is today an integral part of all sciences’ as postulated by Bosch, et al.