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Mastering systems thinking in practice
Mastering systems thinking in practice

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2 The language of systems

This is not the only definition of a system you will encounter in the literature but most encapsulate these same characteristics in one way or another. A colleague has used this very short definition: ‘A system is a collection of entities that are seen by someone and interacting together to do something’ (Morris, 2009). Whichever definition you prefer, the term system is closely, indeed logically, associated with two other terms: environment and boundary. The definition and essential meaning of these terms is straightforward. The environment of a system comprises those elements, activities, people, ideas, and so on that are not part of the system but which may nevertheless be important in understanding it. System is the foreground; environment is the background, the relevant context of the system. As for the term boundary, that is basically where the system ends and the environment begins. I can therefore add a fifth part to my definition:

  • e.Putting a boundary around this organised assembly of components distinguishes it from its context or environment.

None of these ideas, in itself, should present any difficulty. However, their use in thinking about situations is both trickier and more rewarding than you might expect.

In Week 2 messes were distinguished from difficulties by their characteristic of being unbounded in important respects. Of course, if a problem is literally and completely unbounded it extends to include ‘Life, the Universe and Everything’. In practice things are usually not that bad. Nevertheless, there is a genuine and important dilemma: on the one hand one wants to avoid too limited and local an analysis; on the other hand, one really cannot rethink and change everything at once.

The area of interest extends in numerous directions. So in tackling messy situations there is a recurring dilemma: how much one bites off. Enough to deal with the hunger pangs, but not more than those concerned can chew. But how much is that and can such a mouthful actually be separated from what is not eaten?

A cartoon of a woman with a thought bubble showing an ecosystem.
Figure 3 A system of interest comprising a system (with sub systems), boundary and environment is distinguished, by someone as they engage with a particular situation.

The language of systems does not solve this problem, but it does provide a way of addressing it. The task is essentially one of finding a workable provisional boundary for the system containing the issue of interest, or at least a significant part of the issue. But in distinguishing between system and environment one accepts that the issue is not self-contained, that it can only be partially disentangled from its broader context.