Tag Archives: Open University

All Systems Go! – Systemic Thinking for Understanding and Insights

This is the next posting in the Thinking Styles series: See Think about it – 8 ways to enhance your thinking for an introduction to the series.

If you have a scientific background (and probably even if you don’t) you are likely to pride yourself on being able to think systematically. But, can you think systemically?

Systems Thinking

Systematic thinking with its logical, sequential and linear approach is very important and contributes to most of the thinking styles covered in this series. Systemic or Systems Thinking is much less prevalent but potentially even more important.

The approach looks at systems [dynamic entities with interactive elements that act as purposeful units] and their relationship to their environment [everything outside the system]. The concepts build on the ideas of Russell Ackoff, Peter Checkland and latterly, Peter Senge amongst many others.

Systems thinking starts with some relatively straightforward concepts and can provide insights into the most complex of natural and man-made entities.

Systems thinking encourages you to:

  • understand the system as a whole
  • to examine the interactions between parts
  • to see how the system interacts with its environment.

Getting Started

A great starting point to understand the subject is Gene Bellinger’s Website

There are also some excellent learning resources on the Open University Systems Websites:

Systems Thinking and Practice  and

Systems Thinking and Practice: Diagramming

Diagrams and Facilitation

The diagramming ideas are incredibly useful for helping you getting to grips with complex situations and can be particularly helpful to encourage dialogue, build shared understanding and tease out different perspectives from groups facing seemingly intractable problems. They should be part of any facilitator’s toolkit. [The Fifth Discipline Field Book by Peter Senge et al is also a very useful resource for facilitation techniques and I’ll return to this in a future posting]

Influence diagrams are fairly easy to produce and very useful for facilitating discussion. Producing the diagram encourages effective dialogue and this can be as, if not more valuable, than the diagram itself.Simplified Influence Diagram

Simplified Influence diagram for Selling Services

Influence diagrams highlight the interconnections between the various issues. By adding information on the direction of influence these can be developed into multiple cause diagrams  which can help you to identify reinforcing and self-sustaining loops.

Reinforcing loops, also known as virtuous or vicious circles (depending on whether they are positive) are often buried in the depths of real life issues. Self-sustaining loops tend to bring systems back to equilibrium and can sometimes explain why it appears to be impossible to effect change.

Peter Senge suggested a set of frequently recurring structures resulting from various combinations of Reinforcing and Balancing structures. These are often called archtypes: no doubt you will recognise these elements in some of the situations you come across.

Simplified Example for Coaching

The very simplified graphic below shows how two reinforcing loops [empowering and depowering circles] limit individual performance with a self-sustaining element of the notion of self-worth. This is an example of the “limits to success” archtype.

Empowering and De-powering circles in equilibrium To shift the balance between the two circles, the individual needs to develop a different perception of their own self-worth. The situation is naturally much more complicated than this as the causal loops (circles) are much more complex and the notion of “Self-worth” is itself part of a complex set of interactions. Nevertheless, this simplification can be of great help in coaching situations and can shift the focus from performance to beliefs, which can then be worked on.

Next Steps

This brief introduction has not even scratched the surface of the subject and if you would like to be pointed towards some additional sources of information on Systems and Systems Thinking, please let me know at jim@fulcrum-management.co.uk

Let us know if you’d like some help with systems thinking, facilitation or problem solving – call us today