It is tempting to view systems thinking as just a mental discipline. However, this perspective misses the richness and breadth of the approach – which actually includes emotional, physical, and spiritual dimensions as well. Integrating all of these dimensions increases your effectiveness in applying systems thinking to meet the complex challenges that organizations and other systems face.
Systems thinking is a language and set of tools meant to illuminate our thinking about how the systems we are all part of actually operate. Built into this language are important core principles about how systems function:
Feedback: performance of our organizations and systems is largely determined by a web of interconnected circular (not linear) relationships;
Delay: actions we take have both immediate and delayed consequences that we don’t always take into account;
Unintended Consequences: today’s problems were most likely yesterday’s solutions;
Power of Awareness: when we see and understand the system as it really operates, we are no longer controlled by it;
Leverage: systems improve as the result of a few key coordinated changes sustained over time.
These principles and language often combine to create recognizable patterns or classic stories. The core story explains how people fail to achieve the results they want despite their best efforts. System archetypes are all variations on this theme. They describe different ways in which these shortfalls can result from our own underlying assumptions and actions, as well as from the multiple and sometimes conflicting goals that compete for our attention. For more on competing goals, you can read the articles “Exposing the Hidden Benefits of Business as Usual: Why the Status Quo Is So Difficult to Change”, and “Conflicting Goals: Structural Tension at Its Worst”.
It can be very difficult to acknowledge how our own thinking and behavior contributes to the problems we want to solve. Our tendency is to blame others instead of take responsibility when things do not work out as planned. To learn more about supporting the shift from blame to responsibility, read the article “Moving from Blame to Accountability”.
Moreover, we are often very emotionally attached to our beliefs and assumptions because we equate who we are with what we think, and we tend to be rewarded for strongly advocating our beliefs. Therefore, changing how we think frequently involves the humility, curiosity, and courage to meet such emotional challenges as admitting we might not be right, experimenting with new assumptions and behaviors, and learning from others. It is important to be accepting of everyone’s views since they can contribute to our own understanding, and to be compassionate towards them since all of us have our own limited perspectives. For more on developing an emotionally intelligent approach to systems, read the article “The Systems Orientation: From Curiosity to Courage”.
As one of our colleagues explains, systems thinking is a team sport. It works because stakeholders with diverse perspectives come together to share their views, expand their understanding, and develop a more complete picture of the reality they all face. The primary purpose of mapping a system is to stimulate catalytic conversations that lead to shared insights and shared responsibility, which in turn provides the foundation for coordinated action.
Coordinated action takes place in the physical realm. It is made possible through a combination of thinking systemically, i.e. understanding a complex problem in terms of the interdependence of its parts, with acting systemically, i.e. bringing diverse stakeholders together to share their aspirations, thinking, and experiences (see the blog post “Thinking and Acting Systemically”). Systems thinking alone risks producing insights that people do not want to support, and acting systemically by itself tends to encourage people to try to optimize their part of the system at the expense of the whole.
Systems thinking can also be viewed as a spiritual practice which involves seeing connections, making positive choices, and cultivating personal strengths. Both systems thinking and spiritual practice involve surfacing the often non-obvious interdependencies that exist between seemingly distinct elements. Both challenge us to make choices that lead to cultivating positive connections among these parts instead of allowing the different elements to undermine each other. Both involve developing such character strengths as respect, compassion, awareness, vision, courage, and persistence. For more information on the relationship between systems thinking and spiritual practice, read the blog post “Systems Thinking as a Spiritual Practice”.
Systems thinking is not just a mental activity. One reason systems thinking can be so powerful in creating the changes we want is that it also engages the emotional, physical, and spiritual dimensions of human experience.