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Systems thinking and practice
Systems thinking and practice

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3 Ways of thinking

The fact that there are different ways of thinking comes as a surprise to some people. That is because our previous training and experience often locks us into a particular way of thinking about a situation. Sir Geoffrey Vickers wrote with great insight and simplicity about the whole business of how we think about ourselves and our institutions:

Lobster pots are designed to catch lobsters. A man entering a lobster pot would become suspicious of the narrowing tunnel, he would shrink from the drop at the end: and if he fell in, he would recognise the entrance as a possible exit and climb out again – even if he were the shape of a lobster. A trap is a trap only for the creatures which cannot solve the problems it sets. Man traps are dangerous only in relation to the limitations of what men can see and value and do …

(Vickers, 1972, p. 15)

So a lobster pot is a trap for lobsters only because they behave the way they do. They are trapped by their own limitations at least as much by the external obstacle. It may be that, like the lobster, you always think, speak or act in response to certain stimuli in the same way. The clearest evidence of being stuck in your thinking is when you find yourself in a situation that you have faced before, and all you can think of doing is what you did before; and you know that didn't work. As Sir Geoffrey Vickers also wrote:

We the trapped, tend to take our own state of mind for granted - which is partly why we are trapped.

On such occasions, it is often useful to have different ‘tools for thought’ in order to set about thinking about the situation, exploring new ‘angles’, trying out different boundaries and generating a more rounded appreciation of a situation, however complicated, familiar or unusual. An important part of this is the ability to explore and value others’ points of view, trying out their perspectives and incorporating their insights. All these features characterise ‘systems thinking’, although they are not exclusive to it.

Two points about these ‘ways of thinking’ are worth mentioning. First, they are the basis for genuine intellectual skills and that is why this book is both academic and practical. Secondly, some of them may initially appear strange and feel decidedly awkward. Others you will find come more naturally. Which ones prove easy or difficult will depend on your existing patterns of thought. This means that you will not be able to decide how useful a particular ‘tool’ will be until you have acquired a reasonable measure of proficiency and tried it on some actual problems. But to some extent too it will also be a case of ‘horses for courses’. Which tools work for you will also depend on the sorts of problem you encounter.

At one level, we each have a way of thinking which is unique. Most of the time I can barely glimpse how even my closest family think. But at another level our Western society and education has trained us all in certain ways of thinking. The two main kinds are logical thinking and causal thinking.