Systems Practitioner 3: Embracing Complexity


We have all become interconnected in a vast physical and digital web. Potentially contentious issues, such as healthcare, environmental protection, gender relationships, poverty, mental health, economic development, migration, land use or water allocation (just to name a few), are now tangled and magnified in a global system of ecological, economic, social, cultural and political processes, ideas and dynamic interactions in relentlessly challenging ways not experienced before the Industrial and Technological Revolutions.

These increasing complex issues and challenges require new ways of thinking and a fresh approach to address the multi-dimensional and multidisciplinary nature of complexity.

There is an urgent need for a societal change to deal with complexity in a world that focuses on reductionist approaches (breaking things or issues into parts; traditional linear thinking; seeking silver bullets).

The need to step outside our collective ‘comfort zone’, develop new ways of thinking and act in the interest of our future is crucial.

System thinking offers a holistic and integrative way of appreciating all the major dimensions of any complex problem, and enables the formation of effective and long-term management strategies.

It is not only the ‘privilege’ of systems scientists to ‘tame’ complexity – everyone must deal with it.

Complex problems can only be solved if we have sufficient knowledge and everyone has some level of knowledge and wisdom about the issues facing society.

Critical to the success of any problem management is the continued involvement of stakeholders throughout the processes of finding effective solutions, creating and implementing management plans and refining the management over time. That requires a working knowledge of systems thinking in practice – not necessarily to become a systems scientist, but for everyone to develop a sufficient level of knowledge and skills to engage effectively in systemic decision making.

This course is therefore written for everyone who has to deal with issues in the wide range of areas of interest in society within the context of economic constraints, cultural sensitivities, different political agendas and other social issues.

This chapter describes the processes for unravelling complexity through participatory systems analysis and the interpretation of systems structures to identify leverage points for systemic interventions. It further demonstrates the promotion of effective change and the enhancement of cross-sectoral communication and collaborative learning. This learning focuses on finding solutions to complex issues by applying an iterative, systems-based approach, both locally and globally.

Current approaches to understanding and dealing with complex problems are almost universally ad hoc and non-systemic.

Few individuals or groups consider the issues holistically, i.e., few appreciate the interconnectedness of the elements of the vast system of which they are a part; and honest discussion is rare.

Silos of ideas, policy and activity abound; and issues bubble along without satisfactory resolution, ranging from ocean protection to city planning.

It has become apparent that complex problems cannot be solved anymore through a traditional single discipline and linear thinking mindsets. There is an increasing demand for society to move away from linear thinking that often leads to ‘quick fixes’ that do not last, to a new way of thinking that is systems-based.

It has become clear that more comprehensive and cross-partisan approaches are required. They must take into account participants’ mental models and encourage systems thinking.

In other words, it is only by appreciating the dynamic interplay of all the elements in a system that today’s complex social, economic or environmental problems can be solved.

Although systems thinking is an ‘old’ concept, it is increasingly being regarded as a ‘new way of thinking’ to understand and manage complex problems at both local or global levels.

The analogy of an iceberg is used to illustrate the conceptual model known as the Four Levels of Thinking for understanding systems.

In this conceptual model, events or symptoms (those issues that are easily identifiable) represent only the visible part of the iceberg above the waterline.

Most decisions and interventions currently take place at this level, because ‘quick fixes’ (treating the symptoms) appear to be the easiest way out, although they do not provide long lasting solutions.

However, at the deeper (fourth) level of thinking that hardly ever comes to the surface are the ‘mental models of individuals and organisations that influence why things work the way they do. Mental models reflect the beliefs, values and assumptions that we personally hold, and they underlie our reasons for doing things the way we do’.

Moving up to the third level of thinking is a critical step towards understanding how these mental models can be integrated in a systems structure that reveals how the different components are interconnected and affect one another. Thus, systemic structures unravel the intricate lace of relationships in complex systems.

The second level of thinking is to explore and identify the patterns that become apparent when a larger set of events (or data points) become linked to create a ‘history’ of past behaviours or outcomes and to quantify or qualify the relationships between the components of the system as a whole.

The systems thinking paradigm and methodology embrace these four levels of thinking by moving decision-makers and stakeholders from the event level to deeper levels of thinking and providing a better understanding of the system under consideration.