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Mastering systems thinking in practice
Mastering systems thinking in practice

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3.3 Wider systems

The third general point is that systems are nested within other, wider systems. Saying that ‘this’ is the environment, ‘this’ is the system, and ‘these’ are the sub-systems, of which the system is constituted, reflects a choice of the level at which you will work. Russian dolls, which fit snugly one inside another, provide a useful analogy. No single one of them is ‘the doll’; each one fits inside a larger one. Instead of trying to identify ‘the system’ it is more helpful to think of a hierarchy of systems which fit inside each other from which you have to select the system-level at which you will work by exploring the most relevant ones.

The use of the Russian doll analogy is an example of a set of techniques that can be used to explore complex situations, others being the use of metaphors, diagrams, and models. We can build up our view of the ‘system’ being considered by wheeling in particular representations of various recognised systems and using them to highlight the presence or absence of particular interrelationships and patterns of behaviour within our explanatory ‘system of interest’. It is as if we display the raw complexity of the complex situation on an overhead projector slide and then superimpose different sorts of ‘systems of interest’ on it as overlays, to draw attention to different aspects of the way the ‘system of interest’ works and the way the ‘system of interest’ can be perceived by other people who are interested in it.

This is important because if thinking in terms of systems is to be of any use it must involve more than mentally grouping a number of components together and calling them a system. The whole point is that these components are interrelated, so it is important to be able to grasp the ways in which they characteristically combine and interact. An understanding of these interrelationships, of how certain components ‘hang together’, is likely to provide a basis for deciding what to include in the system in the first place.