What is "Systems thinking" and how can it shape our lives?

The concept was introduced by Alexandr Bogdanov, the Russian revolutionary, philosopher and scientist, under the name “tektology,” in his 1912 book 'The General Science Of Organization: Essays In Tektology”. The modern acception of the term we owe it to biologist Ludwig Von Bertallanfy who in 1954 established what is now called systems thinking.

Systems thinking is the capacity to see connections between apparently unrelated, independent forces. By understanding systems thinking, we become aware of our role in the ecosystem and that actions reverberate throughout the ecosystem.  If we understand systemic behavior, we can anticipate that behavior rather than being controlled by it. Understood correctly, this paradigm of thinking has the potential to solve the major problems of humanity. The circular economy is an example of how systems thinking can help us understand and solve complex problems like raising levels of pollution, scarcity of resources, and increasing population.

Systems thinking has an enormous potential to empower individuals to function more efficiently and proactively within the system, which will, in turn, shape the quality of their lives.

Analytic  vs. synthetic thinking

Systems thinking sits in contrast with analytic thinking where phenomena can be understood by reducing them to their ultimate elements. In systems thinking, we understand the world through a process of synthesis because the world is seen as an interconnected conglomerate of related forces. The capacity of synthesis allows us to see all the parts and understand the relation between them.

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Synergy

The combined interaction between different parts of a system with different characteristics generates synergy. An example of synergy could be an innovation breakthrough that is the result of the collaboration between an interdisciplinary team.  None of the team members could have achieved the result individually but the combination of resources, skills, information, and education, placed in a system that made possible the collaboration, generated a result greater than the sum of its parts.

Feedback loops

In an interconnected world, there are always flows and feedback loops. This is how system parts affect one another. There are two main types of feedback loops: reinforcing (negative) and balancing (positive). An example of a reinforcing loop is a critical organizational culture that determines a defensive working practice which reinforces the critical working culture, which determines the same defensive attitude and so on. The loop continues as long as both parts respond with the same behavior. In systems thinking this is called “addiction” or “escalation.”  

An example of a balancing feedback loop is when having to wait for approval from senior leadership increases the delay in taking action from middle management which in turn increases reliance upon senior leadership and so on. The situation continues as both parts perpetuate the same behaviour. In systemic thinking, this is called “shifting the burden” because for a short period the symptoms of the problem are alleviated (when senior leadership gives approval, and the executive team is allowed to take action) while reducing the capacity to address the real problem.

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Systems thinking maps

According to TechTarget, some of the most important systems thinking tools are behaviour over time, the causal loop diagram which illustrates the relationship between system elements, the management flight simulator which shows the effects of management decisions, and the simulation model which shows the interaction of systems over time.

Understanding systems thinking is fundamental for getting a perspective on how the world works and what are the actions to take in order to reach the desired outcome.