Systems Thinking

If you dismantled a piano into a pile of parts, where would you find the music? If you have the latest digital dictionary on your tablet, where does it store “War and Peace”? The analytical approach to complexity converts complex whole objects, largely unknowable, into smaller more comprehensible parts. The whole is the sum of its parts as the expression goes. The expectation of this scientific approach is that if you reduce something into smaller and more understandable pieces you will then understand the original complex object.

Systems thinking challenges that notion. In a systems analysis, the parts are only the beginning of the system. Composed of the parts and their interactions, the whole often displays behaviors much richer than expected from just the individual functions of the parts. To a systems thinker, it is the emergent properties, those that don’t appear until the parts function as a whole, which makes the system significant enough to study. A piano, composed as it is of metals and wood, strings and sounding boards, is an inert object until a skilled musician sits down and manipulates it to produce the music of the great masters. The pianist can speak to the quality of the parts and even to the accuracy of the results, but he or she is not required to know anything of the scientific principles or laws that make the piano perform its function in order to produce music. The music is the emergent property that occurs when the pianist uses the properties and functions of the piano.

When a systems thinker approaches a problem, he or she wants to observe how the behavior of the parts influence and enhance the emergent properties of the whole. Fixing a broken system or improving a functional one is not always accomplished by merely identifying and replacing defective parts. A fix might be accomplished by tuning the outputs of sub-units or improving the quality of the inputs into the system. When a piano is exposed to weather and the strings no longer vibrate at their expected notes, a piano tuner and not new strings may be the only fix necessary.

A systems approach to a problem begins by establishing the boundaries from which a system can be influenced. Systems thinkers look for leverage in a system where small and reasonable changes can be applied to produce globally favorable results. Every problem represents opportunities to get new views and understanding of the whole system.

In “Thinking in Systems: A Primer”, Donella H. Meadows offers the following as a guide for systems thinkers to handle growing and improving complex systems:

1. Get the “beat” of the system
2. Expose your mental models to the light of day
3. Honor, respect and distribute information
4. Use language with care and enrich it with systems concepts
5. Pay attention to what is important not just what is quantifiable
6. Make feedback policies for feedback systems
7. Go for the good of the whole
8. Locate responsibility in the system
9. Stay humble, stay a learner
10. Celebrate complexity
11. Expand your time horizons
12. Defy the disciplines
13. Expand the boundary of caring
14. Don’t erode the goal of Goodness

When applied to technology, a systems approach represents a fresh opportunity to leverage information systems in new and smart ways. By committing to a systems approach, today’s businesses have an opportunity to improve internal operations, provide greater customer service and discover new and profitable opportunities to grow in the information age.