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Managing complexity: A systems approach – introduction
Managing complexity: A systems approach – introduction

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3.5 Distinctions about systems practice

A tension has existed throughout the history of Western thought around whether to focus on parts or the whole. The practice that springs from this history carries the same tension. This tension has been particularly visible within science and philosophy for a long time and it gives rise to different approaches. I will be addressing these tensions in Section 4.

Emphasising the parts has been called mechanistic, reductionist or atomistic. An emphasis on the whole has been called holistic, organismic or ecological. As Fritjof Capra (1996) notes: ‘In twentieth century science the holistic perspective has become known as “systemic” and the way of thinking it implies as “systems thinking”.’ Capra also claims systems thinking is ‘contextual’ thinking; and since explaining things in their context means explaining them in relation to their environment, I can also say all systems thinking is environmental thinking.

Two adjectives arise from the word ‘system’. Systemic thinking, thinking in terms of wholes, may be contrasted with systematic thinking, which is linear, step-by-step thinking. Likewise, it is possible to recognise systemic practice and systematic practice. Table 3 summarises some of the characteristics that distinguish between systemic and systematic thinking and action.

Both systematic thinking and systemic thinking have their place. I am not in any way trying to set up an idea that systemic is good, systematic is bad. They are not in opposition in the hands of an aware practitioner. My own perspective, when managing or intervening in messy situations is that it is usually more appropriate to approach the task systemically. In other words, systemic thinking provides the context for systematic thinking and action. Thus my ideal, aware, systems practitioner is one who is able to distinguish between systemic and systematic thinking and is able to embody these distinctions in practice. This has implications for the initial starting conditions for any form of purposeful action – i.e. do I start out systemically or systematically? I take this up in Section 4 in terms of engaging with complexity in a given ‘real world’ situation.

Of course, I am building an ideal model and day-to-day experience is different from this. No person can expect to become or embody the ideal overnight. It requires active engagement in a process of experiential learning. The other point I wish to make is that I am not equating the systems practitioner role with someone who is a professional consultant. This is a possible role, but in my idealised model the systems practitioner is anyone interested in understanding and taking action in any context.

Table 3: A summary of the characteristics that distinguish systemic thinking and action and systematic thinking and action
Systemic thinkingSystematic thinking
Properties of the whole differ, they are said to emerge from their parts; e.g. the wetness of water cannot be understood in terms of hydrogen and oxygen.The whole can be understood by considering just the parts through linear cause-effect mechanisms.
Boundaries of systems are determined by the perspectives of those who participate in formulating them. The result is a system of interest.Systems exist as concrete entities; there is a correspondence between the description and the described phenomenon.
Individuals hold partial perspectives of the whole; when combined, these provide multiple partial perspectives.Perspective is not important.
Systems are characterised by feedback; may be negative, i.e. compensatory or balancing; or positive, i.e. exaggerating or reinforcing.Analysis is linear.
Systems cannot be understood by analysis of the component parts. The properties of the parts are not intrinsic properties, but can be understood only within the context of the larger whole through studying the interconnections.A situation can be understood by step-by-step analysis followed by evaluation and repetition of the original analysis.
Concentrates on basic principles of organisation.Concentrates on basic building blocks.
Systems are nested within other systems – they are multi-layered and interconnect to form networks.There is a foundation on which the parts can be understood.
Concerned with process.Concerned with entities and properties.
The properties of the whole system are destroyed when the system is dissected, either physically or theoretically, into isolated elements.The system can be reconstructed after studying the components.
Systemic actionSystematic action
The espoused role and the action of the decision-maker is very much part of an interacting ecology of systems. How the researcher perceives the situation is critical to the system being studied. The role is that of participant-conceptualiser.The espoused role of the decision-maker is that of participant‑observer. In practice, however, the decision maker claims to be objective and thus remains ‘outside’ the system being studied.
Ethics are perceived as being multi-levelled as are the levels of systems themselves. What might be good at one level might be bad at another. Responsibility replaces objectivity in whole‑systems ethics.Ethics and values are not addressed as a central theme. They are not integrated into the change process; the researcher takes an objective stance.
It is the interaction of the practitioner and a system of interest with its context (its environment) that is the main focus of exploration and change.The system being studied is seen as distinct from its environment. It may be spoken of in open‑system terms but intervention is performed as though it were a closed system.
Perception and action are based on experience of the world, especially on the experience of patterns that connect entities and the meaning generated by viewing events in their contexts.Perception and action are based on a belief in a ‘real world’; a world of discrete entities that have meaning in and of themselves.
There is an attempt to stand back and explore the traditions of understanding in which the practitioner is immersed.Traditions of understanding may not be questioned although the method of analysis may be evaluated.


Being systemic or systematic.

Classify the following statements as reflecting either a systemic or systematic perspective. What are the implications of classifying these statements in this way?

  • (a) My car is getting old and periodically refuses to start. When it does, I have to check a series of options and do some tests to discover what's causing the latest trouble.

  • (b) There is no point in having a meeting to discuss this because the antagonisms within the department will dominate the situation and there are too few people interested in changing that.

  • (c) I am being investigated by the Inland Revenue because my accountant made an error in calculating the dividend I received from the business last year.

  • (d) The understanding of life is based on an understanding of DNA and how this is incorporated in genes.

  • (e) As the managing director, I always found out what all participants in a disagreement thought and felt about what went on. Therefore, I could never blame any one person for the conflicts and messes that arose. I did my best to help each participant understand the others were taking a different view and had misunderstood aspects of the situation.


I think descriptions (a) and (b) exemplify systematic thinking. If I accept (a) for what it is, there is a step-by-step procedure that I know from experience will result in a successful analysis. For me, (b) and (c) exemplify simple cause-and-effect thinking, which in both situations could represent a trap. Description (d) is for me an example of systematic thinking that conceptualises life as understandable in terms of basic building blocks, which can be understood by studying the properties of the blocks. Example (e) suggests to me someone who is thinking and possibly acting systemically. I say possibly, because I would like to check out the claims from perspectives other than the managing director's.