Brian Renew
August 25, 2017

Are you a Systems Thinker?

Brian Renew

This three-part series of posts will take aim at Systems Theory and how to apply it to everyday life. Thinking in systems helps to manage, adapt, problem solve, create, and see the wide range of choices we have before us. Thinking of this persuasion isn’t unique to mathematics and third world wizardry, rather its philosophy enables you to cut through and ignore the opposing group-think based reaction and symptom solving that leads to dead ends, reoccurring problems, and overly complex systems. The more common but narrow line of thinking can be summed up as “see the problem, fix the problem” and its primary focus is usually to cast blame. In contrast, thinking in terms of systems gives you the bigger picture and the freedom to identify the root cause of problems so that new opportunities are apparent to avoid, repair, mitigate, or reroute the problem-causing elements to better benefit your system. Which makes blame of little importance because the scope is kept at a macro level.

Complex math over man's face in serious thought

As you start to think with systems theory in the forefront of your mind, hopefully you will find yourself with a slightly new perception of the world, a world that is made up of systems and interactions. You will begin to see (and care) about how elements in the system interact with one another and even how one system interacts with other systems. This gives you an immense advantage when it comes to problem solving. A systems thinker can identify systemic problems and see the system therein as the source of its own problems. Fix the system, fix the problems.

How do you see the world now?

Parable of the blind men and the elephant
Chances are, you are like most of the population and see the world through an Event Oriented lens. Event Oriented thinkers see something specific happen and react to it, like when the shower is too hot they adjust the hot water, or when their bank account gets too low they pick up more hours to increase their income. Take the blind men in the parable as an example, each man had a different experience with the elephant (the system). However, each man experienced only a single part of the elephant, thus having multiple incomplete accounts of what an elephant is. Systems Thinking is different because it allows you to see the entire elephant for what it is and allowing you to understand how the parts work.

A system thinker identifies the relationship between structure and behavior, then gathers an understanding of how the system works, what makes it produce unfavorable results, and finally which decisions can be made to achieve more favorable results. As for the elephant, even a blind systems thinker would want to inspect the entire animal before rendering an opinion. In the bank account example, a systems thinker considers the outflow of money as well as the inflow -so pinching your pennies in addition to increasing hours should provide maximum cash retention. In addition, a systems thinker will inevitably ponder ways to make the system more efficient; perhaps they would consider a reoccurring source of income to mitigate the circumstance which triggers change to the flow of money through the account.

A Systems Thinker

  • Keen understanding of parts
  • Perceives interconnections
  • Asks theoretical questions of future behavior
  • Creative ideas behind making systems more efficient

So what is a System?

A system is set of things that are interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time, and it consists of three kinds of things: elements, interconnections, and a function/purpose. Elements are the tangible and intangible pieces to the system, and they are interconnected with a specific purpose. A system is more than just the sum of its parts, it exhibits adaptive and dynamic goal-seeking behavior. So, it isn’t just a conglomeration of things without interconnections or purpose.

The human digestive system is a great example of parts (teeth, enzymes, stomach, intestines) working together for a specific purpose (regulate food intake, break down basic nutrients, discard unusable wastes). The system may go faster or slower based on the food intake, but its purpose is self-serving and unchanging. In this case, the digestive system is a nested system designed to perpetuate the other necessary systems of the human body, and most systems are self-perpetuating in some way.

System terms

The simplest elements of system to identify, the parts, are visible and tangible things. In the parable, the system of the elephant is made up of easily recognizable parts: the trunk, the ear, the leg, the side, the tail, the tusk, etc.

The relationships between the parts in the system. This is the glue that makes the pages bind together in a book, the nutrients absorbed through a tree’s roots, or the rules to a ball game. Some interconnections in systems operate in the flow of information, making more challenging to identify but plays just as important in deciding the system’s operation.

The most crucial determinant of a system’s behavior, but is typically the least obvious. Most systems cause their own behavior, an outside force or event my trigger that behavior, but the resulting flow through a system typically sets the conditions for the system to continue. Most systems are self-perpetuating in this way, but the best way to deduce a system’s function is to observe the behavior.

The stock of a system is the accumulation of material that has built up in the system over time. In the bank account example, the stock would be the money, in a bathtub system it would be the water, in the digestive system it is the nutrients, in coal mining system the stock would be the coal, and it keeps going. A stock can rise by increasing the inflow, but decreasing the outflow can also result in a rise if the inflow remains constant.

Feedback Loops
Feedback loops are present when changes in the stock affects the flow of that stock. The maintain the level of stock or they can cause it to fall. In your bank account, if you start to run short on cash you would most likely work to make more money. That is a feedback loop, albeit rather simple and direct. The change in stock occurs when your bank account gets below your comfort level, and knowing that affects the flow of money when you work to earn more.

System Examples

System Example table

How to Identify a System

Not all collections of things amount to a system, so identifying a system by way of recognizing parts isn’t the most accurate. Pay attention to the interconnections between parts, and observe the feedback loops, and overtime (as the system works) the function will reveal itself. At which time you should be able to accurately identify the entire system.

Make Sense?

Hopefully, your brain is starting to think of possibilities that you haven’t seen before. When systems start to become apparent and when you begin to solve problems from the vantage point of a systems thinker, you will find yourself asking “What is the system?” as your starting point, as opposed to “Who did it?” or “What caused it?”. The latter is reactionary unfortunately scopes you into a narrow view of the problem, thus making it difficult to solve. Being a systems thinker keeps you at a 30,000-foot level. This should intrigue you because thinking in these terms with everyday life can enable you to measure an uptick in life improvement as a result of making decisions with Systems Thinking as your foundation.

Coming Up…

The key to grasping a system based foundation is understanding why they work so well, how we can spot them, and how they change. Systems can get very complex and sometimes things happen that we don’t expect, so learning about system archetypes and common patterns of problematic behavior is necessary. The next post will dig into creating change in systems, how it can be controlled, and how it may be volatile. Hopefully by the end of this last installment you will have a full understanding of systems and learn to interact and change them.


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