What is Systems Thinking?
Systems Thinking is the act of giving consideration to whole systems without loosing sight of their parts and in this way discovering emergent properties absent from the parts.
In this definition, a system is a collection of parts considered together, with the whole having a defined purpose.
It must also be stated that the system view is only one of the mind and that systems don’t exist by themselves in reality. The system view is only a tool for the mind to think about a situation or an organization.
How do one thinks systemically?
At first glance, it’s simple: one has to give consideration both for the forest and the tree at the same time and making sure that every tree has been considered with respect to the forest under study. For instance: how are trees impacting the forest and how is the forest impacting the trees. Also, how are the trees (the ones at the border) interacting with the forest’s environment? How is the forest impacting its environment (fields, towns, human population…)? Also, it’s worth thinking about how my view of a forest is impacting the forest-system I’m studying (at what distance does a tree stop belonging to the forest? Do a road crossing a forest is part of it? What about the living creatures inside it?)
In this analogy, the forest could be considered as the system, the tree are its parts. Of course, from my definition above, a natural forest is not a system as it doesn’t have a purpose of its own.
A lot of methods and approaches have been devised to “do” systems thinking. Here are the ones I came to know for now. I will very probably expand this session as my learning progresses:
- systems dynamics which allows to look at the dynamics over time of a situation (what influences what, and in which direction) – mainly popularized by Peter Senge’s fifth discipline renowned book;
- viable system model created by Stafford Beer that consider the conditions under which an organization (or system) may be viable. Very helpful in diagnosing organizations and proposing improvements;
- soft systems model by Peter Checkland is well targeted at problematic situations.
Very worth mentioning and supporting is Gene Bellinger’s initiative of creating a generic systems thinking method named “Systemic Perspective“.
What is the purpose of systems thinking?
It’s main purpose is to try to improve understanding of complex situations and devise actions plans that minimize unintended consequences. The main domain todays where systems thinking seems to be a most use si ecology where human activity is studied with respect to its environmental impacts.
My main source of information regarding systems thinking is Gene Bellinger’s wonderful web site SystemsWiki.
All my Systems Thinking bookmarks are on my delicious account under tag “ST” or “systems+thinking”.
I maintain links for free resources and learning material on my delicious bookmarks here: http://www.delicious.com/stampf/systems+thinking+course