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Finding the perfect #systemsthinking method: is that what you really want?

I think you will spend 195 seconds reading this post

There’s this discussion on LinkedIn about finding a Systems Thinking “Theory of Everything”.

I don’t know why, but it triggered something in myself that I would like to share here as well.

Let me again come back to constructivism: all these approaches and methods reflect the mental models of their conceptors. As such, they’re perfectly adapted to whoever created them along with the context in which they were primarily intended for.

Biomatrix seems the more systeMAtic of all those I’ve encountered, with this respect.

Now, I question the practicality of such highly sophisticated approaches. How do you teach them to people?

I don’t question their usefulness in bringing further understanding of a situation and consequently improving if with less unintended consequences than if no approach would have been used instead. But the more sophisticated an approach is, the more difficult it will me, IMO to “sell” it to some organization, either externally from a consultancy perspective or internally.

All these approaches try to do is help creating a model of a problem or situation in order to improve it. From basic principles (causal loops diagrams, DSRP…) to more sophisticated ones (Biomatrix, SoSM (System of Systems Methodology), etc.) they try to be as close as possible to reality, yet without fully embracing it (for it would be reality itself, not a map of it!) So, here again, we’re in constructivism: that of the creators of the aforementioned methods, and that of the people making up a system we would like to study/improve using one of those methods.

I have two personal convictions.

  1. The first one is that a system is its best map and that the (future) solution to its problems is already embedded i it, even if invisible for now.
  2. The second one is that you have to make a tradeoff somewhere between having a very good (ie matching the variety of the system) method to help a system see what solution would work for it, and a simple enough method that can be taught and explain to people making up the system. Too simple, it might not bring any insight, too complicated, it will be dismissed before even using it.

I personally turned to strength-based approaches to change such as Appreciative Inquiry (part of the “whole-system” change methods) or Solution Focus where the system itself is helped deliver what would work for itself.

If really needed, I can revert to some very simple models (that I use as a checklist) to help ensure some basic elements of an organization have been considered. For instance, McKinsey’s 7S might be helpful sometimes (and I don’t go further than what Wikipedia).

The fact is that a system is what it is, composed of most importantly (to me) its autonomous (sub)parts: humans. And humans construct their own reality, so instead of trying to box them into some different reality, I think we need to help them see their own boxes and help them connect them all so that they do something that matters and makes sense to themselves.

Don’t try to understand in too much details what they mean of what they want. Trust them to know better than you’d ever could. Lead them in the trouble waters of where they are to the clarity of where they would like to be. Let them identify the impediments on the way. Let them identify their strengths. Let them identify their own solutions (most of them they have *already* experimented to some extent – solution focus!). Then let them decide what path would work best for them and help them maintain the direction they chose. And then help them identify when they arrived at their destination so they can congratulate themselves.

And don’t even get me into change resistance, because that’s what a sophisticated method will probably trigger anyway!


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One Response to “Finding the perfect #systemsthinking method: is that what you really want?”

  1. Steve Schneider says:

    My work took me away from the discussions for a while, and I am trying to catch up. I actually saw Nicolas’ post on finding the perfect systems thinking method in System Thinking Weekly. I like reading his posts and Appreciative Inquiry because he has a way of explaining systems concepts and his own ideas in an entertaining, easy to read way. What caught my attention was the tag line: “Why would you want to?” I suppose we can think of reasons, such as universal understanding and universal definitions. However, would that be good for systems thinking, removing barriers to understanding, and increasing its acceptance? I agree with the points Nicolas made.

    It is difficult enough to help others shift from whatever approach they are currently using to a system approach. If asked, many of us can facilitate as others are learning just what a system approach would look like in the context of their organization. We can help overcome barriers as we explain basic system concepts. However, introducing too complex theoretical orientations may also be overwhelming. Anything new starts with simple procedures.

    Nicolas stated, humans create their own reality. Add to that, reality is based on perception. I agree that the simpler the explanation, the easier it will be to increase application. As Nicolas pointed out, each person’s strengths, path, and solution can be an individual choice. For a system to function well, everyone will need to come together; and telling people why their opinion is not correct is not a good idea. Opinions are not wrong. They might be based on incorrect information, but that is why having someone to facilitate is helpful.

    I do not believe there is a perfect systems thinking method. If there was, would it really become universally accepted? Like any field, universal language and guidelines can be helpful. On the other hand, it can also set the field too far apart from other related ones. However, systems thinking is not like other areas of study like psychology, sociology, education, or computer science. It is less a field unto itself and more of an approach that can benefit all fields. When answering the question why would you want to find a perfect system approach, it is important to consider if our answer is based on being for or against the need, or the many difficulties it would entail.

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