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Systems thinking and practice
Systems thinking and practice

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3.4 Holistic thinking

Holistic thinking deals with wholes rather than parts. The basic idea is pretty straightforward. Imagine you are trying to decide what to plant in a new garden, and you choose all sorts of plants and shrubs which you like. You can't just go on buying individual plants without, sooner or later, coming to some view of the whole of the garden, otherwise you'll have too many things for one part of the garden and not enough for another, or you may chose plants unsuited to the conditions, or that shade out each other.

Figure 8

Imagine, to take another example, that you are a member of a group which isn't working well. Much of its meetings are taken up with people defending themselves against real (or imaginary) criticisms and talking at cross purposes. Somehow, unimportant decisions are debated for hours and big ones go through on the nod. Everybody leaves the meeting feeling drained, but also feeling that not much has been achieved. If you wanted to understand why this was so, you could start by looking at each person individually – does he or she have the qualities which are needed to work in this group? You could list them one by one, and decide, in relation to each individual, whether or not that person was contributing to the problems. You might even decide that one person was really unsuited to the task, get them removed from the group and expect all to be well. The chances are that it wouldn't. Your way of thinking about this problem, by looking at the parts, overlooks the relationships between the people, and these are crucial to what is going on. And, when you think about it, the same is true if you look first at the relationships between two of the members, and then at relationships between another two and so on.

It is the interplay of all the relationships between all the members which is one of the major factors making the group function as it does. The behaviour of the group emerges from the interactions of the whole, and can't be predicted by looking separately at the behaviour of each of the parts.

So the basic idea of holistic thinking is that you need to think about wholes rather than just about parts. The problem with this idea is that it isn't always clear what is a whole and what is a part. A person is a whole, but he or she will be a part of a group, such as a family or workgroup. And that group, which is a whole, is a part of a larger group, such as a community or organisation. So all of them seem to be both parts and wholes at the same time. Similarly, a fish is a whole, but it won't survive long unless it remains part of the pond in which it lives; and the pond is part of an ecological system and so on. So it looks as if, whatever you decide to think about, it is bound to be a whole! That is true: but what matters in practice is the way you go about trying to understand a phenomenon, or tackle a situation. One way is to start by breaking things up into separate bits, and then tackle each bit separately and draw inferences or take actions based on your understanding of these parts; if this doesn't seem to work, then the next step is often to break things into even smaller bits. As we saw earlier, this is the reductionist approach that has underpinned most scientific and technological activity. The holistic approach starts by looking at the nature and behaviour of the whole you are concerned with, and if this doesn't yield results, the next step will be to look at the bigger whole of which it forms a part. In other words, the two approaches go in different directions.

But this seems to raise another problem, which is: How do you look at wholes? You'll never understand the whole of the behaviour of a group or a pond, let alone a society or an ecological system. Isn't it simply impossible to think holistically? The answer to that question needs a short discussion. Because the brain is bombarded by information collected all the time by the senses, it has to order or structure it in some way. In this process the brain selects some pieces of information as important and ignores others, and the information it retains is fitted into pre-existing categories. People tend to remember incidents which confirm their view of the world. If I think someone is trying to do me down, I will notice and remember things she does which seem to confirm that view – even to the point of distorting what is really happening. She may be making overtures of friendship, but I will probably interpret them as part of a cunning plot. It is much simpler and easier to interpret what happens as confirming what I think, than to rethink and re-assess every belief I have all the time. In other words, like everyone else, my thoughts simplify the mass of ideas and information I receive into some familiar patterns. In fact, all ways of thinking simplify, because full knowledge and understanding of reality is impossible. So holistic thinking is bound to simplify wholes; what is interesting is how it does it.