Problem Solving Desperately Needs Systems Thinking

If we want to overcome the systemic issues behind today’s problems, then we need to change the thinking that led to them to begin with. The status quo of how we are taught to think is linear and often reductionist. We learn to break the world down into manageable chunks and see issues in isolation of their systemic roots.

This dominant way of approaching the world is a product of industrialized educational norms – in one way or another, we have learned, through our 15 to 20+ years of mainstream education, and/or through socialization, that the most effective way to solve a problem is to treat the symptoms, not the causes.

Yet, when we look at the world through a systems lens, we see everything is interconnected. Problems are connected to many other elements within dynamic systems. If we just treat one symptom, the flow on effects lead to burden shifting and often unintended consequences.

Why has the linear thinking approach been so dominant?

Linear thinking — the “A leads to B, results in C” perspective — is the byproduct of our industrialized education system and it is a key reason we have messy problems to start with. Paulo Freire refers to this as the ‘Banker-Style’ education system, designed to maintain the status quo.

MIT Professor and author, Peter Senge, wrote a great book on Systems Thinking in the 1990s, called The Fifth Discipline. It’s actually focused on organizational change, but I forgive him for that as it’s a great book (and I know that the nerdy business world was the dominate space systems thinking hung out in when it first came to prominence). In The Fifth Discipline, Senge makes a case for why we need systems thinking:

“From an early age we are taught to break apart problems, to fragment the world. This apparently makes complex tasks and subjects more manageable, but we pay a hidden, enormous price. We can no longer see the consequences of our actions: we lose our intrinsic sense of connection to a larger whole.”
 — Peter Senge, 1990

Society loves to develop and replicate structured and isolated ways of thinking, from the hypothesis-to-outcome structure of scientific investigations, through to the hyper-structured and inflexible departments of Government — we have designed systems of silos that don’t connect to the bigger picture. These isolated systems butt against each other, creating very linear perspectives of problems and limited approaches to solving them.

Here’s the thing: problems never exist in isolation, they are always surrounded by other problems. The more you can comprehend about the granulation and context of a problem, the greater your chances are of finding a truly effective solution. The good news is that undoing linear and ridged thinking is pretty easy. Embracing this systems approach will help you evolve problems into solutions.

Most of us are taught, from a young age, that in order to solve a problem, we simply need to break it down to its core components and solve for x. We learn science experiments that have an aim, method and outcome, a linear process from problem to solution. We are socialized to respond to reward and punishment and by the time we have graduated from 15 to 20+ years of institutionalized education, we have trained our brains to think in clear, ordered and, yes, very linear ways. The problem with this is that the world is not linear. Whilst life may be marked by a start and an end, by birth and death, it is most certainly not a straight ordered line; it is a chaotic mess of experiences that make and define our understanding of the world.

“Let’s face it. The universe is messy. It is nonlinear, turbulent, and chaotic. It is dynamic. It spends its time in transient behavior on its way to somewhere else, not in mathematically neat equilibria. It self-organizes and evolves. It creates diversity, not uniformity. That’s what makes the world interesting, that’s what makes it beautiful, and that’s what makes it work.” ― Donella H. Meadows

Linear thinking is reductionist, it’s all about breaking things down and reducing complexity into manageable order. But the by-product of reductionist thinking, is that we are very quick to solve a problem with the same thinking that led to its cause. This, according to Einstein, is not the way to solve problems– instead, it just leads to more problems.

A systems approach is an incredibly powerful thinking tool for addressing and working towards eradicating problems. Thankfully, humans naturally have a curious and intuitive understanding of complex, dynamic and interconnected systems that make up the world around us. So, it’s really not that hard to re-wire the thinking codes from linear to expanded, from 1-dimensional to 3-dimensional thinking. Doing so allows us to think in and through the problems we are trying to solve.

If we really want to start to address the highly complex, often chaotic and incredibly urgent social and environmental issues at play in the world around us, then we must overcome the reductionist perspective and build thinking and doing systems that work for all.

Systems Thinking 101

Systems thinking is a way of seeing the world as a series of interconnected and interdependent systems rather than lots of independent parts. As a thinking tool, it seeks to oppose the reductionist view — the idea that a system can be understood by the sum of its isolated parts — and replace it with expansionism, the view that everything is part of a larger whole and that the connections between all elements are critical.

Systems are essentially networks made up of nodes or agents that are linked in varied and diverse ways. What we want to do in systems thinking is be able to identify and understand these relationships as part of the exploration of the larger systems at play.

Everything is interconnected, every system is made up of many subsystems, and is itself a part of larger systems. Just as we are made up of atoms with molecules and quantum particles, problems are made up of problems within problems. Every system is like a Matryoshka doll, made up of smaller and smaller parts within a larger whole. Seeing things in this way helps to create a more flexible view of the world and the way it works, and it illuminates opportunities for addressing some of its existing and evolving problem arenas.

I describe this type of thinking as looking through the telescope to see the infinite possibilities of space, peering through the periscope to see the lay of the land, with all its tangible connections, and looking back down to the microscope to get a refined view of the tiny parts that interconnect to make up the infinite whole. This is the foundations to a three dimensional thinking practice that systems thinking enables.

Taking a systems worldview helps to develop a three dimensional perspective of the world, the problems that exists within it and all the potential possibilities for addressing them.

Thinking in Systems

Right now, there is no shortage of big complex messy social, political and environmental problems that need to be addressed. From climate change to racism and homelessness to global politics, taking a systems approach allows for a dynamic and intimate understanding of the elements and agents at play within the problem arena, enabling us to identify opportunities for intervention.

One of the big hurdles people experience when starting to think through systems, is that the possibilities of everything, absolutely everything, being interconnected makes it hard for people to know when to stop, and thus creates a mental wormhole of potential possibilities. My solution to this is drawn from life cycle assessment and basically just applies a scope, constructing a boundary around the investigation area to help define the arena in which one is exploring. Inside the scope are all the elements, outside of the scope are the other systems or elements that are identified but not included in the exploration. Think of it as learning to swim in a pool, with solid visible walls, versus the ocean, with infinite possibilities and no defined edges. Start in the swimming pool and the systems start to make sense. Eventually you upgrade to swimming in the ocean with ease.

Here is an example to help you get into the systems mindset: Say you have a glass of milk. If you add more milk to it, you’ll end up with a larger amount of milk. On the other hand, if you have a cow who produces milk and you add a new cow to the other one, you won’t get a larger cow — you’ll get two cows who can produce more milk. If you pour half of the milk into another glass, you have two separate glasses of milk. If you cut a cow in half, you don’t get two cows– in this case the system (the cow!) is dramatically changed, and the cow is no longer able to produce milk. Cut the cow in half, and you’ll have two heaps of meat, not two cows. This is because systems function as a whole and ‘heaps’ do not. The critical thing to know here is that systems are dramatically affected by changes within subsystems. After all, everything is interconnected in a system, and we live in one gigantic eco-system that sustains life on Earth through its interrelationships, creating the right environment for the grass to grow to feed the cow that makes the milk. This example is taken from the fantastic 1980’s introduction to systems thinking by Draper Kauffman (available here), it’s a great read.

The 3 Main Systems at Play

The world is made up of endless large and small interconnected systems, but there are three that are key to consider: social systems, industrial systems and the ecosystem. These three big systems keep society in order, the economy churning along, and the world functioning for us humans. I describe social systems as the intangible rules and structures, created by humans, that keep society and all its norms and rituals functioning. Industrial systems refers to all of the manufactured material world, created to facilitate human needs and all of which require natural resources to be extracted and transformed into stuff. And the last big system, and arguably the most important one, is the ecosystem, which provides all the natural services (such as clean air, food, fresh water, minerals and natural resources) needed for the other two systems to exist. Without the ecosystem, we have no smart phones, no houses, no food, and no humans for that mater.

Ultimately, approaching things from a systems perspective is about tackling big, messy real-world problems rather than isolating cause and effect down to a single point. In the latter case, “solutions” are often just band-aids (that may cause unintended consequences) as opposed to real and holistic systemic solutions. Looking for the links and relationships within the bigger picture helps identify the systemic causes and lends itself to innovative, more holistic ideas and solutions.

Six Systems Thinking Things to Think About:

I could go on writing about systems thinking forever– as everything is connected to everything! Instead, I’ll leave you with these six things to think on:

  1. Today’s problems are often the result of yesterday’s solutions
  2. Everything is interconnected
  3. You can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that caused it
  4. Easy solutions can lead to negative impacts elsewhere
  5. The easy way out often leads back in
  6. Systems are dynamic and constantly changing

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I teach systems thinking as part of The Disruptive Design Method for creative problem solving. Find out more here >

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