An Introductory Guide to Systems Thinking

Systems thinking is a way to manage your organization in a way that looks at the bigger picture and connections that run through a business.

Systems thinking helps create solutions that not only solve immediate problems but assist in running a more efficient workplace.

This style of thinking is growing in popularity and for good reason. So, if you too want to jump on the bandwagon here is an introduction to starting your journey to systems thinking.

What Is Systems Thinking?

The field of systems theory has been argued to be a major breakthrough to help understand the workings of an organization.

This theory approaches systems as a whole system, along with their subsystems and the relationships and patterns between those subsystems.

The systems theory has paved the way to getting a better understanding of change organizations.

Systems analysis is the application of systems theory. And a major tool of systems analysis is systems thinking. It was originated in 1956 when Professor Jay Forrester initiated MIT’s Sloan School of Management’s Systems Dynamic Group.

Systems thinking is a tool that enables an individual to approach systems from a broad perspective and view the overall structures, cycles, and patterns in systems rather than simply focusing on a singular or specific event in the system.

Adopting such a broad view, it allows you to more easily and quickly pinpoint the real causes of issues in your organization thus allowing you to identify just where you need to work to address them.

Systems thinking incorporates different tools and principles for analyzing and changing systems.

Six Key Themes in Systems Thinking

systems thnking vs productivity

Some multiple elements and themes make up a system mindset. However, before we can go on to explain this type of thinking in detail it is beneficial to understand the six main themes involved.

These themes include systems mapping, emergence, interconnectedness, synthesis, feedback loops, and causality.

We will go over each, in turn, to help you understand the rest of this blog with more ease.

1. Systems Mapping

Systems mapping is one of the main tools to adopt when approaching this type of thinking.

The aim is to identify and then map the elements of certain things within a system highlighting how they relate and interconnect in a complex system.

This mapping helps illustrate unique insights. These insights can then be used in turn to develop decisions, policies, shifts, etc that will change your organization’s systems in the most efficient way possible.

You can adopt a number of different ways to map depending on what works for you, your team, and your organization.

2. Emergence

When you refer to the emergence in a systems perspective you are speaking of the natural consequence of things coming together.

Emergence, therefore, is often used to define the result of things interacting together and the synergies of parts.

3. Interconnectedness

This type of thinking requires you to shift away from a linear mindset to a circular mindset. This is because you are following the principle that everything is interconnected.

As is true with the universe, everything needs something else to survive. These things are often a complex array of things, as is the case for your organization.

4. Synthesis Vs Systems Thinking

Generally, synthesis is the process of two or more things combining to create something new.

Your goal with a systems perspective should be synthesis rather than analysis. The analysis is the breakdown of complexity into more manageable components.

Synthesis involves understanding the whole, as well as the parts all at the same time. This is important considering systems are generally dynamic and more often than not complex in nature.

The synthesis also involves considering the relationships and connections between the parts and what makes up the dynamic of the organization as a whole.

5. Feedback Loops

Considering that all parts and everything are interconnected there is a constant feedback loop between the individual elements of a system.

In order to be able to able to work with the feedback loops, including the ability to observe, understand, and intervene you need to properly understand the type and dynamics of the feedback loops.

There are two main types of feedback loops, namely reinforcing feedback loops and balancing feedback loops.

Reinforcing feedback loops are when elements in a system reinforce the same, thus an abundance of a single element continues to refine itself. This type of feedback loop is not good and can lead to a single element taking over.

The second type of feedback loop is balancing. A balancing feedback loop is good and involves elements within the system balancing each other out.

6. Causality

Once you understand feedback loops you can understand causality. Causality is the phenomenon of things resulting in other things when you look into dynamic and constantly evolving systems.

Causality is cause and effect which is prevalent in many professions and in the World, we live in.

When you consider causality in systems you refer to how to decipher how things influence each other in the system.

Understanding causality is important as it helps gain a perspective on feedback loops, agency, connections, and relationships. These are all important for systems mapping.

These concepts are important for your understanding of systems analysis and thinking. They will help you think more creatively and diversely – thus, in turn, leading to more positive outcomes for your organization.

Systems Thinking in Management

Adopting this approach in management and operations can aid you and your team in coming to the right business decision that is best for everyone involved.

A decision with the entire system in mind is made differently and with a broader perspective and consideration in contemplation.

You would analyze each decision you are to make for your business with the systematic consequences in mind that the decision would have on other variables and individuals.

For example, if you consider acquiring new equipment you will no longer simply consider the equipment you are purchasing but any infrastructure changes that may be required, employee training that could be needed, even business delays that installation may cost. All these factors will contribute to the business decision.

When you apply such thinking to management you are basically ensuring that one considers the organization as a set of dynamic and interrelated parts. You can view your organization’s departments as these parts which are sub-systems within your company.

This approach aims to avoid or at least minimize the waste of money, time, and other valuable resources that could otherwise be used more efficiently.

To be able to reach your organizational goals your sub-systems must have continuous interactions which are effective. It is the way these subsystems function together that makes the whole system, and your entire organization function effectively.

By adopting such an approach and style of thinking you will also be considering how current or even future activities will have an impact on your organization as a whole.

A systems perspective can help your organization to operate in a social environment, frame policies, and promote business objectives all more effectively and successfully.

When to use Systems Thinking?

Systems analysis and thinking is diverse in their application and can provide plenty of benefits to your company and organization as a whole, we will discuss this in more detail below.

However, certain situations could benefit the most from such an approach and are ideal to implement this method.

This type of thinking intervention is ideal for problems or issues that are of great importance and are persistent rather than just a one-off event.

You may also find another benefit of adopting this method for problems as your team’s newfound ability to solve issues.

Another great application is for problems that are somewhat familiar and thus can be addressed more easily.

Top Down vs Bottom Up Approach: Which is Best for Your Organization?

Again, it should be noted that the way you implement this type of approach is entirely up to you and can be used in a way that will best help your organization as a whole.

Advantages of Systems Thinking

So, why should you adopt systems analysis and thinking in the first place?

Here are some benefits you can gain:

  • By adopting this approach to systems, you can help make your organization’s workplace more efficient. And as we mentioned above the aim of this approach is to minimize wasted money, time, and resources all of which are great benefits to you and your company as a whole.
  • Knowing how your organization works as a whole system and your employees interact gives you the knowledge to help optimize your processes making work more efficient and productive in the long run.
  • Knowing and understanding the system as a whole can help with making the right changes that will bring about benefits to everyone, not just a single department.
  • Taking a step back and adopting a holistic view will also help solve problems in a way that will add to achieving the organization’s goals rather than just short-term solutions.

These are just a few of the things you stand to gain from adopting this systems approach to your management and your organization.

Conclusion

All organizations whether large or small involve complex relations and systems that all share the organization’s common goals.

In order to find long-term solutions and improve efficiency and productivity overall, a view of the interconnected dynamics and the system as a whole is beneficial. This in turn can lead to a better way for you to conduct your business.

We hope this guide gave you the motivation and knowledge you need to incorporate this style into your own organization to get the most and best results for you and your teams.

Steve Parker
Steve works as senior editor at PL. When he's not writing or slashing through content, he loves to dabble in board games, coffee and all-things-Agile.

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