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What is Systems Thinking?

Systems thinking is a holistic way to investigate factors and interactions that could contribute to a possible outcome. A mindset more than a prescribed practice, systems thinking provides an understanding of how individuals can work together in different types of teams and through that understanding, create the best possible processes to accomplish just about anything.

A man and a woman using a whiteboard and sticky notes to map a project.

There are systems all around us, if we know where to look.

A family unit is one system, while the community in which we live is another. That community is part of a bigger system of a county or city. All parts of a university make up different systems within the whole. Financial aid, the classroom and the library make up different systems.

By learning to view the world as a series of systems, and by understanding our part within them, we can begin to make better decisions, be better teammates and find infinite ways to be more productive in all areas of our lives.

What Is Systems Thinking?

In short, “systems thinking is about investigating what set of factors and interactions are contributing to or could contribute to a possible outcome,” said Steve Brown, deputy director of collaborative learning and strategic insight at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU).

Christina Dumeng and the text Christina Dumeng.“Systems thinking is useful in helping teams become more aware of how they’re interacting with each other and within the team, and it helps them understand the outcomes they’re producing,” Brown said.

There is a wide application for thinking in this type of holistic way. Christina Dumeng, associate dean of business programs, said, “Thinking about the impact of any system as it relates to decision making is important in understanding the broader scope of how all of the pieces in your organization connect.”

What is an Example of Systems Thinking?

While any team at work or at play is a system, perhaps the biggest system of all is the one with which we’re most familiar: the natural environment.

“Think about the different interactions of the ecosystem and how they change,” Brown said. When one aspect of the ecosystem changes, there is a domino effect on the rest of the system, sometimes in ways we could not have predicted.

Now, apply that thinking to the workplace. Consider nursing, for example.

“You have professionals who need to have a comprehensive understanding of many different systems in order to do their job,” said Dumeng. “They need to know about the human body, but also the community, the population and information management. Nursing professionals have to be able to connect the dots far and wide throughout these different systems to provide the best outcome for patient treatment.”

How Do You Use Systems Thinking?

Systems thinking is a great tool to remind us to always consider the bigger picture, according to Brown. While it's easy to see how to take things apart, it can be much more challenging to understand how the individual parts interact to make up the big picture. 

Before sitting down on your own or with a team to devise a project, make a change, or solve a problem, consider the different systems your ideas could impact.

“Applying a systems thinking mindset can help provide clarity for all of the different factors that impact results," Brown said. "This type of thinking also helps you identify potential problem areas and provide you with a sense of perspective."

What Are Characteristics of Systems Thinking?

Holistic thinking is a key characteristic of systems thinking. “Consider the whole over the parts,” Dumeng said. “Study the patterns of behavior that you might see, and think holistically about your project to ensure you’re making the best decisions that you can.” Consider all possible stakeholders who might have insight or who might be affected, positively or negatively, by your proposed change.

Another key characteristic of systems thinking is the willingness to ask the right questions. Brown suggests starting by naming the problem, and then considering the factors that might be impacting the problem. Throughout the inquiry, try to be disciplined in determining the answers. A willingness to ask the right questions and consider all possible answers, as well as taking the time to experiment to find the answers rather than guess at the answers ourselves, is key.

Why is it Important to be a Systems Thinker?

The world is complex, so our thinking should be complex as well. By making it a habit to consider and reconsider how our own role might be connected to others, we can mitigate impact and work together to create better solutions. 

“If you just try to fix a problem by focusing on the part that needs fixing and not considering how that part got broken in the first place," said Brown, "or how the fix may impact others, you risk either getting a new problem, or you get the same problem again later.”

What Are the Systems of Thinking Tools?

A RACI chart is an excellent tool for systems thinking. RACI stands for:

  • Responsible
  • Accountable
  • Consulted
  • Informed

Considering each of those elements when attempting to solve any problem “helps you continuously ask who is responsible for this decision, and determine who the right people are who need to be informed before making a decision or a change,” Dumeng said.

For Brown, the iceberg metaphor is a classic tool. “The outcomes that we see are only what’s above the surface of the water,” he said.

When applying the iceberg metaphor to any problem, ask these questions: 

  • What might be below the surface?
  • What the possible laws, policies, or other pieces of information that affect the problem you're trying to solve?
  • What possible issues or concerns might lead to what you see above the water?

Always start with what you know, but apply the iceberg metaphor as a reminder to ask lots of questions about what might be lurking below.

What Are the Benefits of Systems Thinking?

The benefits of systems thinking are wide-ranging.

Involving the right stakeholders from the beginning saves time, energy and ultimately, money when making any business decision. “Systems thinking helps you move through a decision logically, continuously asking if this decision will impact anyone outside the scope,” said Dumeng.

When implementing change, administrators need to consider all stakeholders across the entire affected system before taking action. “Otherwise,” said Dumeng, “we’re just going back to assumptions with our design and that’s not the most effective path to creating something worthwhile.”

What Are the Key Concepts of Systems Theory?

Both Dumeng and Brown agree that the hallmark of systems thinking is the way this mindset forces non-linear thinking. “Including perspectives from outside your narrow scope helps widen your frame of vision and helps you see outcomes you might not have considered,” said Dumeng.

Adopting a systems thinking mindset is never about winning a battle or being right. Systems thinking helps each person manage different perspectives to bring them together in the best possible way. Keeping that in mind can help you effectively solve any problem.

What is the Difference Between Design Thinking and Systems Thinking?

Understanding the system is critical before you can create the design. It's helpful to apply systems thinking before designing a project, because "you can use systems thinking to consider which stakeholders will be most affected by your proposed project," said Dumeng. 

By doing that, you can use their feedback to design the project. "This way, you are basing your design on what the stakeholders actually need, not what you think they need” said Dumeng.

A New Perspective

Learning how to adopt a systems thinking mindset can be a challenge. Including many stakeholders at the start of every project can feel time-consuming and cumbersome. But, by taking the time to consider the systems with which we work up front, any project design will be that much stronger, with a solution that lasts. By learning how to continuously ask ourselves how we fit as a piece into the larger whole of the systems around us, we can work together better as teammates, colleagues, and stewards of our environments.

Marie Morganelli, Ph.D. is a freelance content writer and editor at Precise Words Creative. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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