Systems Thinking is described by Peter Senge as “a discipline for seeing wholes rather than parts, for seeing patterns of change rather than static snapshots, and for understanding the subtle interconnectedness that gives (living) systems their unique character”. Systems Thinking examples include ecosystems, cars and human bodies as well as organisations!
Systems Thinkers have taught us that a system is a product of the interaction of its parts, not just the sum of its parts. For example if you take the car apart it is no longer a car, as it has lost its essential functions. It is the collective interactions of the parts that dictate system behaviour.
Instead of ‘analysis’ – a focus on individual components, Systems Thinkers place importance on ‘synthesis’ – the relationships between components and how they function as a whole.
Leonardo DaVinci is an early example of a Systems Thinker. Though he became famous because of his paintings he was a Renaissance man – mathematician, geologist, anatomist, botanist, inventor, writer, sculptor, architect and musician. DaVinci sought to learn from every possible source, and was fascinated by the interconnections he found. “Learn to see”, he urged, “Realise that everything connects to everything else”. The Vitruvian Man is a systems thinking example: more than an illustration of human proportions it is the synthesis of anatomical, geometrical, religious and philosophical studies and way greater than the sum of its parts.
Other systems thinking examples include a loaf of bread, a supply chain, educational systems or healthcare systems. Each is a fusion of several component parts that interact, and are influenced by many factors which may include social, economic, political and environmental – a whole web of interconnectedness indeed.
Adopting a Systems Thinking habit clearly helps to understand important connections and encourages a wide perspective, rather than just a focus on specific events. The Iceberg Model used in Systems Thinking provides valuable framework to assist.
- At the tip of the iceberg – the ice you can see above the waterline – is an event or a happening. This is easily seen and recognised. For example, failure to deliver a project on time.
- Below the waterline, not visible to observers are patterns or trends that happen over time. In the systems thinking example of failure to deliver a project this may relate to several instances of missed tollgate review meetings, or the fact that a number of risks in the project risks register went unaddressed.
- Deeper under water are the underlying structures – the causes of the observed patterns. So why weren’t tollgate meetings made to happen, and why wasn’t appropriate attention given to project risks? This may be due to poor governance practices, an inexperienced project lead or sponsor, or a lack of consequence associated with failure to deliver.
- And finally, deepest of all are the mental models – the attitudes, beliefs and assumptions that allow structures to persist. In this example of systems thinking, they may include a lack of belief in the importance of the project or its objectives. We’re focussing not on the behaviour but on the motivation for that behaviour.
‘Zooming out’ (or looking ‘deeper’ under the water) is a powerful approach when seeking to understand how one thing influences another. It’s less ‘linear’ in nature than root cause analysis, as it recognises interactions and that the output from one part of the system forms an input into another.
Systems thinking is a powerful habit to practice. What Systems Thinking examples can you think of?
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