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Mastering systems thinking in practice
Mastering systems thinking in practice

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1 What are systems approaches?

An approach is a way of going about taking action in a ‘real world’ situation. As outlined in earlier weeks, an observer has choices that can be made for coping with complexity. Think of the everyday ways we use adjectives to describe the word approach. Some that come to mind are:

  • a scientific approach
  • a reductionist approach
  • an empirical approach
  • a philosophical approach
  • an experimental approach
  • a spiritual approach
  • a practical approach
  • a critical approach.

You can probably think of more.

Some of these approaches to taking action seem to operate at different levels – both systems and science could be seen as meta-disciplines and different approaches could be taken in both (meta-) approaches by an aware practitioner.

There are certainly scientists who see themselves as systems biologists, for example, just as there are many scientists who take a reductionist approach and some who take a more spiritual approach. I have already claimed both a systemic and a systematic approach can be encompassed within a systems approach, by an aware practitioner. Please bear in mind here that I am saying these are choices to be made; I am neither commenting on the appropriateness, quality or efficacy of the options, nor am I saying they are exclusive options.

The question of choice is a bit like that hackneyed phrase ‘horses for courses’, although in practice it is more subtle than this. This is because taking a systems approach involves addressing the question of purpose, a topic which was talked about in Week 3 where I distinguished between purposeful and purposive systems and which you will now revisit in terms of purposeful and purposive behaviour.

A cartoon shows two people sitting under a parasol with a sign saying ‘systems approaches’.
Figure 1 Systems approaches.