Why and How Systems Thinking Can Save Us

Systems thinking is an essential part of creating a sustainable, equitable, conscious world. Here’s what you need to know.

What is systems thinking?

Systems thinking is an emerging way of looking at complex issues.

A system is a set of connected things or parts forming a complex whole. Think of an ecosystem — different species of plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, etc. all interacting with one another in complex ways. Think of systemic racism — its not just individuals saying the n-word, it’s the institutions, laws, beliefs, and language that subtly create an effect of inequality and oppression.

In the past, we might be tempted to look at individual pieces of a situation. If the sheep are disappearing, it must be the wolves, right? Get rid of segregation and racism is over, right?

Systems thinking asks us to look at the bigger picture. It allows us to see how and why many distinct elements interact with and build on one another in often unexpected, invisible, and incredible ways.

Systems thinking in action

Imagine a farmer with pest insects eating all her bugs. Traditional thinking would say, OK you have too many pests, so go get some pesticide and spray it around and there you go, no more pests. Easy, right? (If you’re saying “no, not right”, keep in mind this is what we’ve actually been doing for decades now.)

Unfortunately, too often, what appear to be simple fixes actually make the problem worse. In this case, after applying your pesticides, all of a sudden you have more pests. So you go back and get more pesticide, but the problem gets even worse, and so on and so on.

What the hell?

Well, more and more, we are finding that what appear to be the obvious solutions are not solutions at all. They are actually products of overly simplistic thinking and a failure to grasp the system at play.

What traditional analysis doesn’t allow us to see is that there a many different factors at play here. This isn’t a matter of understanding how A affects B, but how A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, and J all interplay with one another to create J, K, L, M… you get it.

What our farmer didn’t realize is that pesticide is killing some of the pests she is worried about as well as a bunch of the other insects that would be eating those pests. So the problem gets worse. At the same time, that pesticide is making her crops more resistant to pesticide, while also making her and her family sick when they eat it and polluting the local groundwater (which then goes back into her crops!) There’s a long list of unanticipated consequences. She didn’t see how the whole system is working. She just looked at two parts of it and paid the price.

Why this matters

Systems thinking give us a framework for seeing the whole picture and understanding complex dynamics and interdependencies. When we step back and look at the whole picture, we are better able to determine strategic interventions that we might not otherwise see. This saves us money, time, and allows us to actually address root causes instead of simply putting on a Band-Aid.

In the case of our farmer, when she applies systems thinking she finds that introducing more of the pest’s predators and setting pest traps works better.

When we are dealing with wicked problems, like global poverty, systemic racism, climate change, etc., the ability to deal with complexity is not only helpful, but essential. It allows us to get toward the root of problems and find lasting solutions. Instead of implementing Band-Aid solutions, we look into deeper structural issues that caused poverty, for example, in the first place. With this lens, perhaps we start looking at unfair local tax structures, unregulated trade, ineffective education, and even the belief that poverty is in all cases a product of laziness.

If we don’t look at underlying causes and dynamics, how can we find lasting solutions to complex problems?