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Systems thinking and practice
Systems thinking and practice

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2 What is this systems thing about?

Most people reading their first systems book or starting their first systems course have one question that they want answered: ‘What is this thing called systems?’ Almost all will have found their answer by the end of the book or course. But it won't just be in the form of a simple definition: it will be something they will have learnt by experience. (In fact this isn't unique to systems. All subjects can only really be understood by experience; it's just that in well established subjects like physics we don't often ask the question ‘What is physics?’.)

So I will be teaching systems by example as well as by theory. You will learn about the problems of defining a system. You will meet some of the key concepts used in systems theory: boundary, environment, positive and negative feedback, etc. You will encounter selected extracts from the writings of noted systems thinkers. But the essence of systems is not just communicated by these words and ideas. The essence of systems thinking and practice is in ‘seeing’ the world in a particular way, because how you ‘see’ things affects the way you approach situations or undertake specific tasks. And how you ‘see’ things is influenced heavily by the culture of the society in which you live and work and by your education and training.

I recall a story (told by a marketing person) about a group of professionals, each given a barometer and asked to find the height of a church tower. The physicist, who remembered that air pressure changes with height, took the barometer reading at the bottom and at the top of the tower to calculate the height. The engineer dropped the barometer and timed its descent to the ground to work out the tower's height. The architect lowered the barometer on a piece of string till it touched the ground and measured the string. The surveyor measured the shadow cast by the upright barometer and by the tower and used the ratio so found to calculate the tower's height. The marketing person went to the Sexton and said ‘If you tell me the height of the tower, I will give you this barometer’.

The story illustrates two important points – first that people and their viewpoints are part of the situations we normally have to deal with and secondly there is more than one way to handle any situation. Systems thinking can help to resolve complex situations involving people and things, where it is as important to focus on the relationships between the people and things as on the structure of a particular situation. System thinking involves looking at the interconnections between parts of a whole rather than concentrating just on the parts. To borrow a phrase from a British politician, systems thinking is about ‘joined-up thinking’, where the key is how the joining up is done.

But is systems thinking really useful? I can best answer that by giving you some quotes from five different students who have studied and used systems thinking:

Frances Chapman:

Systems thinking is important for me because it helps extend my apparently natural way of thinking, providing tools for handling the complexity more adequately and helping deepen understanding; particularly regarding interactions – where once I would have known they were there but remained unsure of quite how some were operating and affecting the basic ‘central’ scenario. Also, by understanding more of the complexity I find this aspect helps me to retain an open mind on most topics, aids reducing prejudice and helps me work to what I feel may be a more balanced viewpoint.

John Robles:

It [systems thinking] allows me to tackle problems not only in a scientific way but in a holistic way which demonstrates a caring approach to all persons at all levels connected with the problem or system(s) involved.

Paul Warren:

Systems thinking is important for me because it provides a formal recognised framework to explain organisational events, and other happenings, which hitherto had to be explained by vague notions of ‘common sense’.

Sarah Smith:

Systems thinking is important for me because it has given me a new and better way to view complex situations, both in organisations and personally.

Bob Saunders:

I recognise the need to take a holistic view of situations in my field of expertise – project management. So many projects fail because consideration of the human element is omitted, or badly covered by the project manager. ‘Systems’ has helped me to grapple with the complexities.

Your next question may well be: ‘But will systems thinking work for me?’. I can't answer this but urge you to read on and discover this for yourself. What I can say is that among those people who use systems ideas there are at least two sorts:

Those wanting to get on with understanding their particular field of interest and who see systems ideas as useful additions to the ‘tools of thought’ they regularly use. They attach no great significance to the ideas themselves and see that many come from, or are used in, a range of other disciplines. A toolbox is a useful analogy. A good toolbox contains within it enough tools to cope with a wide variety of applications. An adjustable spanner, for example, can be used on bolts under the car bonnet, for assembling furniture delivered in a flat package, for tightening joints in the pipes under the sink and, most significantly for the present discussion, for future jobs I know nothing about yet. The point is that once I know that the spanner is in the toolbox, with a little practice I can recognise situations where a spanner is the right tool to use. This book can be thought of in a similar way, as a kit containing ‘tools for thought’. It introduces the tools, shows you how to use them, and illustrates contexts in which they can be useful. These tools, which may not always be directly useful in resolving complex situations, will give you new insights and understanding of various issues resulting in improvements and new learning.

Those claiming systems ideas and methods have important characteristics in common, not least a common philosophical base. For these people systems has emerged as an important discipline or field of interest in its own right. They are interested not just in particular sorts of systems, but in systems thinking in general. And although systems has drawn ideas and techniques from engineering, biology, sociology, psychology and many other fields some say there is something special about systems, just as the different disciplines mentioned above are said to have different ways of thinking about the topic that characterises them.