Systems Thinking for Everyone
Systems Thinking for Everyone on LinkedIn.
Systems Thinking: The Essence of AND and BETWEEN
Systems thinking will not enable us to solve all of our problems. It will simply help us make better decisions.
- Complexity theory
- Complex adaptive systems
- Systems dynamics
Confused and intimidated by these words? So am I. This is the language spoken by systems thinking folks. It is used to explain the complexities of problems that exist in the world. If you are looking for a place where you could learn about these concepts, there are great sources out there, but this page is not one of them. I am not trying to be sarcastic or advocating that these concepts and tools do not have value in the systems science. I would be naive to suggest so. My point is that they are not meant for everyone, and they seem to dominate the systems thinking literature.
This page is a collection of thoughts about how we could simplify the basic philosophy of systems thinking so that it is accessible and understood by everyone. It seems that we (Systems Thinkers) have created a language that is way too complicated for other people to understand and relate to. This initiative is about how we could reach to as many people as possible, preferably EVERYONE, by changing the way we think about systems thinking.
- Thanks for visiting this page. If you have any thoughts or simple practical examples you might want to share, please email Ahmad Salih or write them on the talk page.
I am a farmer. I plant crops. I sell crops to make money. I lose money when bugs eat crops. I spray to kill bugs. Each year more bugs to kill. I spray more to kill bugs. I don't know why.
Sid, the Science Kid, was here to play with Tim yesterday. Sid asked about crops. I told Sid about bugs. Sid said there are bad bugs and good bugs. Sid said good bugs eat bad bugs. Sid said when I spray, I kill bad bugs and good bugs. When I kill good bugs, they don't eat so many bad bugs. That's why I have to spray more to kill bad bugs. Sid said I should help good bugs grow more so they eat more bad bugs.
Sid also said I can't do just one thing. Sid said I have to think before I act. Think what will also happen from act. Think what will happen from result. Think what will make result hard. Maybe other people know more. Maybe they can help know what to do. Maybe they can help what not to do. Sid said mostly problems happen when people don't think right.
Systems Thinking or Systems Understanding?
This page is an attempt to create something for the rest of us: systems thinking in plain English--or your native language in the future. The main objective of this page is to help you enter the wonderful world of systems thinking--just the ground floor. You don't need to understand the terms listed above in order to make a difference in your life. Systems thinking helps you understand things around you. It may not help you solve all of your problems. Solving your problems is your own responsibility. But it will help you look at the world in a natural way, which will allow you to understand the real causes of problems and the effects of your actions. But hey, isn’t understanding part of the solution?
Systems thinking will enable you to better understand the world around you and allow you to have more control over your life than any other subject you may undertake to study.
The Rise and Fall of Systems Thinking
The systems thinking community seems to have created a language that is exclusive, disconnected from everyday life. Though it may help to communicate faster and more effectively among system thinkers, it will be probably difficult for most people to understand. Yet, we often wonder why systems thinking is not widely adopted and used. I find that ironic. We seem to have forgotten what systems thinking is all about—thinking—and we started creating all kinds of diagrams and charts that only we can understand. As much as these diagrams may seem basic and simple to systems thinkers, they may look complicated and intimidating to most people. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the power of diagrams in systems thinking but I'm looking at them through the eyes of the vast majority of the population on this planet who do not know much about systems thinking. The systems thinking folks may argue that these drawings (they call them archetypes, by the way) are not meant for everyone. Well, I have a problem with that; and that what has triggered me to launch this initiative. It’s a pity not to make systems thinking available to anyone and understandable by everyone.
Our challenge is to introduce systems thinking to all people, and in order to do so, we need to talk to them in their own language. If we can't achieve this goal, or if it can't be done, then there is learning needed on our part, or improvement needed on the part of systems thinking.
Is systems thinking too complex for anyone to understand? Well, it does not have to be this way, at least not its basic philosophy. Let's give the world something rather than try and push everything and then end up with nothing. Systems thinking is just about that—thinking. This page is about focusing on the thinking part and forgetting about the doing for now. Let’s leave it up to people to decide what to do with it. As the saying goes, “you can only take a horse to a river, but you cannot make it drink.” Let’s just show people the way to the systems thinking river, and leave it up to them to decide how much they are willing to drink.
The Nature of AND
Have you ever thought about how water is wet? A water molecule is composed of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, neither of which are wet. Even a water molecule isn't wet. Yet, when you get millions and millions of them together in liquid form they seem to be wet. What's up with that? This section will talk about how systems thinking allows us to see more of any situation/problem by adding other possible elements to the case being examined. This can be achieved by exploring the nature of AND. So when you are faced with a certain phenomenon, keep asking, AND what else could influence/or be influenced by the situation? But the question is, "is there an end to this?" What if we run out of ANDs? This is why systems thinking calls on us to draw boundaries around the case being studied so that we know when to stop adding ANDs. (See The Nature of AND for a presentation of this concept).
Gregory Bateson was fond of saying "It's the pattern that connects," which just happens to be how we learn. We connect the pattern, then we extend it, then we reconnect, and extend it some more -- it looks better as a circle.
Expanding Your Peripheral Vision
Have you ever heard of blind spots? Of course, we all have. An example we all are familiar with is related to driving a car (see figure 1). Even with the rearview and side mirrors, it seems we cannot cover 360-degree area. In order to do that we would need extra eyes installed on all sides of our head (creepy!). But can you imagine how many accidents could have been avoided and how many lives could have been saved if there were no blind spots? At this point, you might be asking what all this has to do with systems thinking. Well, just like these driving blind spots, it seems that we all have thinking blind spots. It is the result of focusing on the symptoms of the problem at hand without making an effort to think about what other factors might have caused the problem, how all of those elements influence each other, and what consequences our proposed solution might have. While we will never have a 360-degree vision, systems thinking can help us reduce unpleasant accidents by expanding our peripheral vision.
Peripheral vision is the part of our vision that occurs outside the center of gaze. It is that part of vision that detects objects outside the direct line of vision. For instance, when you read a word on a page, you are using your central vision, but it’s your side vision that tells you if the word is at the beginning or end of a sentence, or at the top or bottom of a page. Your peripheral vision also tells you where to look if someone enters the room or if a car is approaching from the side. Like most people, you are probably not aware of the limitations that would exist without peripheral vision, because you are constantly moving your eyes in order to focus with your central vision.
Thinking is very similar. We often focus on the center of an issue and react to the situation without realizing our mental blind spots. So we jump into conclusion so quickly before we try to assess all possible consequences. But don’t blame your brain. The problem is our eyes. The brain can’t process what our eyes can’t see. Systems thinking expands our peripheral vision by allowing us to see more and recognize the connections between events and consequences. So, next time you have a problem, keep asking, AND what else does this element affect? AND what else affects this element? AND what else could result from this solution?
The Nature of BETWEEN
In ST, adding more elements to a situation is necessary, but not enough. It is crucial that we understand what happens BETWEEN the parts of a system. ST wants us to realize that 1 and 1 does not always equal 2. Think of a car as a system. A car is composed of an engine, a transmission, a battery, an alternator, tires, and hundreds of other parts. If we take all of these parts and dump them into one big container, do we still have a car? Of course not. Why? Because it's the interaction between those parts what makes a car and not the sum of the parts, which is the essence of ST. ST wants us to understand that the whole is more than the sum of its parts.
- Systems Thinking
- Systems Thinking Rubrics/Primary from Waters Foundation Project
- Systems Thinking Rubrics/High School from Waters Foundation Project
- WebEd Systems Thinking in Schools
- Systems Thinking in Catalina Foothills School District
Systems Thinking World Discussions
Systems Thinking World Q&A * Gene Bellinger