Dr. Russel Ackoff (affectionately called the "Einstine of Problem Solving") is by far one of the most knowledgeable and engaging speakers on Systems Thinking. Funny, whip-smart, and passionately engaging, his videos filmed mainly in the 1990's are a must watch if you are new or even an advanced systems thinker. You can thank us later!
In Systems Thinking, we often talk about how the cure can be worse than the disease, specifically when we don't take a holistic perspective into account when seeking to solve a complex problem.
Known as the Law of Unintended Consequences, when non-systemic approaches are used for addressing complex problems, there are often unintended and unwanted outcomes that can result in even greater problems than were initially attempting to be dealt with.
Good intentions don't always lead to good outcomes. This is what we learn from the real-life cautionary tale of the cats airdropped by the United Nations into Borneo...
Does this make you think of a recent decision made that you had the power of hindsight on? That, after the intervention was done, the reality of the cause and effect was seen? Systems Thinking is a vital tool to help avoid unintended consequences, and it is a critical part of effective decision making.
Reach out to find out how Disrupt Design can help you integrate a more holistic decision-making approach to your organisation's activities.
MIT Sloan professor Peter Senge is a leading proponent of Systems Thinking, having authored the 1990's seminal book, The Fifth Disciple.
The book outlines the key approaches to applying systems thinking, understanding interdependence, and realizing the power this has in helping us change ourselves, organizations, and the systems that we create as humans.
We highly recommend getting a copy of the book and reading it, but for a quick and detailed summary of the core contents of the book, check out this great summary on Systems Thinker >
There have been many prominent systems thinkers who have helped to develop and evolve the tools, techniques, and approaches used today to explore and solve complex problems through the deeper understanding of systems complexity, dynamics, and thinking.
Professor Jay Foster from MIT established the field of System Dynamics in 1956 in response to the need to have better ways of testing and understanding social and engineering systems. He provides the following definition:
“Systems thinking is a set of synergistic analytic skills used to improve the capability of identifying and understanding systems, predicting their behaviors, and devising modifications to them in order to produce desired effects. These skills work together as a system”. - Arnold & Wade, 2016
In particular, writings from Russell Ackoff (1973), Draper Kauffman (1980), Peter Senge (2006), Donella Meadows (2008), Fritjof Capra (1988), Peter Checkland (1986), and Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1968) have all made powerful contributions to Applied Systems Thinking.
There is a lot of content available on Systems Thinking, but to get you started, this Systems Thinking 101 by Kauffman is a fantastic introduction. This article is also a useful introduction to Systems Thinking. You can take an introductory course or advanced training online through our educational initiative the UnSchool. We also run in-house workshops on systems thinking; contact us to find out more.
The power of Systems Thinking is in its ability to expand rather than reduce thinking, allowing for an intimate understanding of the operational process of dynamic and interconnected systems in the world around us. We need to move from surface to substance exploration.
There is no doubt of the need to rapidly address the social and environmental issues facing humanity today. Thankfully, the global creative and business communities have started to adapt and take action by design, moving beyond the ‘business as usual’ approach of commodification of natural resources to the shift towards a circular and regenerative economy.
Sustainability has taken on many cultural meanings since it was first widely used in the 1990’s to describe economic growth in line with biosystem constraints. But the real essence of this word is to make decisions today that won't negatively impact the ability for future generations to live the same, if not a better, quality of life that we enjoy.
The shift toward a regenerative economy was ignited in 1987 when the Our Common Future (referred to as the Brundtland Report after the main author) report came out as part of the Rio Earth Summit. It was then that the word sustainability was catapulted into the public arena, used to frame the call for a global commitment to overcoming negative impacts associated with overconsumption and natural resource exploitation. It positioned a new way of economically developing within the Earth’s carrying capacity.
There have been many attempt to get this right, and like any new arena, there have been many failures. But thanks to the progressive scientific community, we are discovering so much more about Earth's interconnected ecosystems, which in turn is allowing us to design products, services, and systems that meet our needs without creating more problems.
Systems thinking is all about understanding and working with complexity and chaos. It's the antithesis of reductive, linear thinking, which results in siloed and marginalized outcomes when applied to a business or problem-solving context. This is why so many of the best leaders are natural systems thinkers; they are always seeking to see how parts fit within a complex whole and looking for the interconnectedness of issues and elements within a system.
Furthermore, leaders who possess a systems thinking approach are more flexible and divergent in their solutionizing around issues that they face; as a result, outcomes don't lead to unintended consequences or transfer the issue to someone else. The solutions are systemic in nature and thus, address the root cause instead of the obvious symptoms of a problem set.
We compiled a few articles to the power of Systems Thinking in Leadership:
- Leadership: A Systems Thinking Perspective by B. Charles Henry (2012)
- Systems Thinking Helps Leaders Handle Change, By Judy Cassidy (1996)
- Systems Thinking, Systems Tools and Chaos Theory from the Management Library
- Leadership: A Systems Thinking Perspective, B. Charles Henry (2012)
- Systems Thinking: Life-Enhancing Business Through Leadership, by Sandja Brügmann (2017)
Here are 11 key principles of systems thinking. For a fantastic introduction, please check out this article by our CEO.
Everything is interconnected: We live on a closed ecosystem called planet Earth where everything is connected to everything else. Otherwise, it ceases to survive and thrive.
The easy way out often leads back in: If the solution were easy then it should have already been found.
Today’s problems are yesterday's solutions: We need to make sure we don't accidentally create tomorrow problems through today's solutions.
There is no blame in complex systems: Everything is interconnected. Thus, it's impossible to ever find one culprit for a problem. Systems have both the issue and the solution embedded within.
Parts are elements of a complex whole: Everything is part of something else; there are no isolated elements in a complex system.
There are no simple solutions to complex problems: We need to embrace complexity in order to truly address complex issues. Otherwise, we just deflect the problem to somewhere else in the system.
Small, well-placed interventions can have big impacts: A well-designed, small intervention can result in significant and enduring systems change if it is in the right place – this is called a leverage point.
Humans make linear systems – nature makes circular ones: We can learn to create regenerative products and services through understanding nature's design principles.
Time changes complexity: Over time, things naturally get more complex. Simplicity and efficiency are very different things, yet we always think we can oversimplify complexity or reduce it down to the sum of its parts.
‘Failure’ is discovery in disguise: If there is no blame, then there is always an opportunity to discover through failure.
Cause and effect are not related in time nor space: There is a mismatch and often a delay in the relationship between the cause of a problem in complex systems and the result (or symptom) appearing obvious.
References drawn on for the development of this list:
Cognitive biases are like contagious brain glitches that affect every human on the planet. Neuro and social sciences have identified and named hundreds of different biases that are socially transferred and replicated. They inhibit our ability to think and behave rationally, and they cloud our better judgment.
Cognitive biases that impact all of us daily include:
- Confirmation bias, where we filter information to see only what confirms what we already believe
- Loss aversion, where we avoid the cognitive pain of losing something
- Hindsight bias, where we think we knew something was going to happen all along only after the event has happened
- Anchoring effect, where are brains are anchored to the most recent piece of information that shift our perspectives of it
- Status quo bias, where we try to maintain the status quo
- Choice paralysis, where too many options make it hard for us to make a decision
There are literally hundreds more. Behavioral economist Dan Ariely has fantastic free resources to discover more of them.
Marketers and technology companies have capitalized on these biases, playing with the influences that subtly direct our behaviors. They guide everything from our purchasing decisions through to how we respect others.
But, there is a big issue here – implicit biases. These are the biases that are buried deep within our subconscious decision-making part of the brain. They subtly influence how we see, respect, and work with others. Implicit biases are causing major issues within organizations because they breed stereotypes and can inhibit fair, equity-based workplaces.
When it comes to effective, collaborative, and respectful workplaces, all humans need ways of categorizing in order to make sense of the world. Yet, these give way to prejudice (which literally means pre-judgment) and forming boxed opinions of people based on social markers of race, gender, and socio-economic status.
When we pre-judge other people, we restrict their ability to out-perform our limited expectations of them. As a manager, this often means you limit people's development based on limited expectations, usually based on judgments that you are not even aware of. As a co-worker, this can mean you unintentionally offend your colleague by saying something that seems reasonable to you but is not to them.
Understanding the language around biases, how they work, and ways of completely recoding them is one of the most valuable and under-used business tools today.
In order for an organization to respectfully hire, manage, and retain workers, they need to foster a culture of bias busting and respectful acceptance. This means the organization must activate equitable access and provide training that goes beyond a video. Simply learning about biases does not always help you unravel the complex brain glitches that build up and lock down over time. There are ways to override bias, but first one must understand how the brain codes the world and forms bias to begin with.
Our method for rapidly overcoming biases and building equity within organizations is based on extensive research. We have spent thousands of hours testing and evolving creative ways of empowering and motivating teams to see through the stereotypes and biases that impede their creativity, collaborative spirit, and productivity.
Edward De Bono is by far one of the most prolific thinkers of the 20th century. He has written +46 books and contributed many leading tools for creative and divergent thinking. You may be familiar with the Six Thinking Hats and the term Lateral thinking, which are are some of de Bono's most impactful works.
Fascinated by the brain and how it can be trained to be more creative, de Bono speaks and writes extensively on the misconceptions we have about the human brain. His quotes are often genius in their simplicity, showing his deep understanding of the limitations people place on their innate creativity. Here are some of our favorite quotes from de Bono:
“If you never change your mind, why have one?”
“Design is how you put together what you have to deliver the value that you want”
"Creativity involves breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way."
“Sometimes the situation is only a problem because it is looked at in a certain way. Looked at in another way, the right course of action may be so obvious that the problem no longer exists.”
“The system will always be defended by those countless people who have enough intellect to defend but not quite enough to innovate.”
"Studies have shown that 90% of error in thinking is due to error in perception. If you can change your perception, you can change your emotion, and this can lead to new ideas"
“An idea that is developed and put into action is more important than an idea that exists only as an idea.”
“Humour is by far the most significant activity of the human brain.”
"Creative thinking - in terms of idea creativity - is not a mystical talent. It is a skill that can be practiced and nurtured."
“Creativity involves provocation, exploration and risk taking. Creativity involves "thought experiments." You cannot tell in advance how the experiment is going to turn out. But you want to be able to carry out the experiment.”
“We need creativity in order to break free from the temporary structures that have been set up by a particular sequence of experience.”
“There is no doubt that creativity is the most important human resource of all. Without creativity, there would be no progress, and we would be forever repeating the same patterns.”
Systems thinkers can simultaneously see the complex whole and the minute parts that create it, in a dynamic and reflexive way. It is a way of thinking in three dimensions, rather than across one linear plane.
Adopting habits of a systems thinker is a secret weapon in solving complex problems, being a more effective leader, and enhancing creativity.
Check to see if you are a natural systems thinker:
You seek to understand the big picture as well as the intricate parts that make up the whole.
You see the patterns and trends within systems and can extract insights from them.
You see everything as being interconnected.
You identify the cause and effect of relationships.
You don't assign blame; instead, you seek out causality and feedback loops.
You see the whole as being different from the sum of the individual parts.
You appreciate the dynamics and complexity of a problem.
You think through the unintended consequences of your actions and design to reduce them.
You can find leverage points to intervene in and effect positive change within a system.
You are constantly testing, exploring, and experimenting.