Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

Become an OU student

Download this course

Share this free course

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

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

2.2 The nature of systems thinking and systems practice

There are no simple definitions for either systems thinking or systems practice. It's difficult to find definitions that capture all the perspectives that the ideas carry for people who think of themselves as systems thinkers and systems practitioners. Most systems practitioners seem to experience the same kind of difficulty in explaining what they do or what it means to be systemic in their thinking. Through experience I've developed some criteria by which I characterise systems thinking, but they seem to be quite loose in the sense that those characteristics are not always observable in what I recognise as systems thinking. In any case, they seem to be my list of characteristics, similar to, but not the same as, other people's lists. This issue will be developed but, for the moment, I would like you to hold the idea that systems thinking and systems practice arise from particular ways of seeing the world.

My hope is, through interacting with the course and asking yourself questions about your experiences, you will discover at least some of these characteristic ways of seeing the world. If you have previously studied Systems courses, you will already have experienced forms of systems thinking and perhaps ‘caught’ it in some way. You may even have developed your own understanding of systems thinking and what it means. If you have not studied Systems before, you need to be aware this unit cannot make you into a systems thinker or a systems practitioner. It can only provide you with a framework through which you can develop your own characteristic ways of being a systems thinker and a systems practitioner.

You may already have encountered in previous Systems courses some of the central ideas of systems thinking.

Gather up your ideas of what these central ideas are by spending around 15 minutes on the following activity.

Activity 5

Make notes on what you think are the main features of systems thinking.

This is not a test question. There are no right or wrong answers. I am simply inviting you to explore what you already understand about systems thinking. Try to make your answer as comprehensive as you can. You could use diagrams if they're a more convenient way for you to represent your ideas.

If you have already studied Systems, you may find this task quite demanding because you will have to abstract these general ideas from what may be quite detailed understandings. Don't be afraid to spend slightly longer on this if you need to.

If your only experience of Systems is through any background reading you may have done, you may want to base your answers directly on your recent reading. That's fine but try to ensure that, in doing this activity, you are building your understanding and not just abstracting a list from someone else's ideas.

As before, date your notes and leave room for later additions. Put your notes with the rest of your Learning Journal.

Your notes from this activity will form a powerful basis from which to build your understanding of, and capacity for, systems thinking. You will develop your own ways of working with the notes you take as you work through the unit. My own way is to add new material in a different colour, indicating the date of the new colour. When making paper-based notes I've also sometimes photocopied the notes and added new notes to the photocopy, which I photocopy again for yet more amendments and crossings out, dating each one as I go. This saves completely re-writing and I only need to rewrite when I have a different appreciation of something, or when it has developed so far the old version is no longer helpful as a foundation. Other people use computer files in a similar way. I prefer not to throw away any old version, even if it gets superseded. It provides me with a record of my developing understanding, especially if I note down what I now understand and why I now think the old understanding is unhelpful. Even notes I think are redundant can prove to be the anchors for new insights.

You don't have to do it my way but I would urge you to find a way that suits you. You will need to be able to record your own learning. Perhaps even more importantly, you will find these notes invaluable as you take responsibility for your own learning.

My own answer to Activity 5 follows. You should not treat this as the right answer. You should certainly not make judgements about your own performance in the light of my response. My notes arise from my experiences, yours arise from your own. I would like to think you and I were both engaged in an activity that gives rise to new experiences and thus builds our own understandings from our own experiences. So I would much rather you treated the following as if we were in a conversation and use my ideas to develop your own.

The important features of systems thinking, as I see them, are these.

  1. Systems thinking respects complexity, it doesn't pretend it's not there. This means, among other things, I accept that sometimes my understanding is incomplete. It means when I experience a situation or an issue as complex, I don't always know what's included in the issue and what's not. It means I have to accept my view is partial and provisional and other people will have a different view. It means I resist the temptation to try and simplify the issue by breaking it down. It also means I have to accept there is more than one way of understanding the complexity.

    Complexity can be quite scary. But it need not be: complexity becomes frightening when I assume I ought to be able to ‘solve’ it. Systems thinking allows me to let go of this notion and allows me to use a multiplicity of interpretations and models to form views and ideas about the complexity, how to comprehend it, and how to act purposefully within it.

  2. Systems thinking attends to the connections between things, events and ideas. It gives them equal status with the things, events and ideas themselves. So, systems thinking is fundamentally about relationship and process. It is often the relationships between things, events and ideas that give them their meaning. Patterns become important. The nature of the relationships between a given set of elements may be manifold. They may be causal (A causes, leads to, or contributes to, B); influential (X influences Y and Z); temporal (P follows Q); or relate to embeddedness (M is part of N). These relationships spring to mind immediately but there are many others, of course.

    This attention to relationships between things, events and ideas means I can observe patterns of connection that give rise to larger wholes. This gives rise to emergence. Thinking systemically about these connections includes being open to recognising that the patterns of connection are more often web-like than linear chains of connection.

  3. Systems thinking makes complexity manageable by taking a broader perspective. When I was studying engineering as an undergraduate, we were taught to break down problems into their component parts. This approach is so deeply entrenched in western culture it seems natural and obvious to anyone brought up or educated in this culture that this is the way to tackle complex problems.

    While this approach is powerful for some problems, it's hopeless for others. For example, it now seems clear that climate change induced by human activity is likely to have major impacts on the planet, its environments, and its living organisms, including people. But all of these effects are so interdependent it is impossible to discover what the effects are likely to be by breaking the problem down.

    Systems thinking characteristically moves one's focus in the opposite direction, working towards understanding the big picture – the context – as a way of making complexity understandable. Most people recognise they have been in situations where they ‘can't see the wood for the trees’. Systems thinking is precisely about changing the focus of attention to the wood, so that you can see the trees in their context.

Understanding the woodland gives new and powerful insights about the trees. Such insights are completely inaccessible if one concentrates on the individual trees. Figure 3 illustrates this sort of shift of attention vividly.

Figure 3
Figure 3 This well-known puzzle picture only reveals its secret if you allow yourself to see the pattern of relationships between the black blobs. Studying individual blobs reveals nothing. If you really cannot see anything other than the blobs, don't worry. It doesn't imply anything about your capacity to be a systems thinker. You can sniff out a meaning to the blobs at the end of Part 1

Systems thinking seems to come more naturally to some people than to others. Others have to learn to think systemically. People trying systems thinking for the first time find it quite tricky in the early stages. The temptation to break down the situation of interest into smaller bits is strong. The systems approaches you will encounter take account of this and are designed to enable you to capture the complexity before you move on to exploring it.

During the 1980s and 1990s, there were significant advances in Systems theory. There were two main drivers for this. One was the tremendous advance in computing capability. This allowed the behaviour of fluid, chemical, biological, and other phenomena to be modelled through time. This generated wonderful new insights into what came to be identified as chaotic phenomena. The second was the renewed synergy between biology and Systems. Both these stories are exciting, and there are a number of well-written books for the general reader that describe some of this work (Would‑be Worlds (Casti, 1997, John Wiley & Sons Inc., New York) arose out of the computer exploration of systems behaviour. James Gleick's classic Chaos (1987, Penguin, London) is also in this tradition. Fritjof Capra's The Web of Life (1996, Harper Collins, London) explores some of the developments in biology that arise from a systems perspective).

Regarding the second driver, the synergy first emerged in the early 20th century among biologists concerned with the properties of whole organisms. This led to an exciting phase of synthesis of ideas from many disciplines that gave rise to General Systems Theory. Since that time, biologists who look at living systems as a whole have turned to systems theory for new insights and, in response to their findings, systems theorists drew new insights from biology.

For me, the practicality of Systems is even more exciting than these developments. This unit is as much about systems practice as it is about systems thinking. There is an exciting synergy between systems theory and attempts to find better ways of engaging with problems and opportunities.

This is what this unit is about. It is an invitation to engage with systems thinking in such a way that you are better able to address the problems, complexities and opportunities that you encounter as you engage with the nitty gritty of whatever you do. Systems thinking provides me with tools-for-thought and the opportunity for a powerful way of looking at the world, whatever the context. The contexts stretch all the way from international issues such as global warming to the day-to-day problems that arise in work, in domestic life and in the local community.

Systems practice in the context of this unit refers to the practice of Systems within whatever profession or calling you follow. You can be a systemic medical practitioner, a systemic wood turner, a systemic technician or a systemic manager by applying systems thinking, insights and approaches to the complexity that you encounter in any of these or other domains.