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Systems Thinking Alliance

The case of systems thinking

As the importance of systems thinking grows, we recognize the need for clear and concise answers to commonly asked questions on this topic. Our goal is to provide you with comprehensive and informative responses that address the most frequently raised inquiries about systems thinking.

What is Systems Thinking

What is systems thinking?

System thinking is a transdisciplinary approach to studying complexity, involving the use of systems concepts, principles, and laws as the foundation of analysis. With systems thinking, we can gain a deeper understanding of the world around us and make more informed choices.

In today’s complex and interconnected world, leaders and decision-makers face the challenge of dealing with this complexity. Classical management theories and quick-fix solutions fail to address complexity and interconnectedness. Systems thinking has proven useful in addressing the challenges posed by complexity. It has been embraced by international bodies, governments, businesses, and organizations as a way to navigate complexity.

As with all disciplines, various systems approaches and methods have been developed over time; they also provide the basis for understanding and applying systemic interventions.

Systems thinking, a transdisciplinary approach to study complexity
Figure 1: Systems thinking, a transdisciplinary approach to study complexity

How is a system defined in the context of systems thinking?

Unfortunately, the term “system” is used quite loosely in both everyday conversations and academic writing, leading to its many interpretations. In the context of system thinking, the best way to understand a system is to understand its attributes.

  • Part-Whole: A system is essentially a group of two or more parts that come together to form a whole.
  • Interconnections: There are connections or relationships between these parts.
  • Purpose: A system has a function or purpose within a larger system.
  • Emergent Property: When parts interact with each other, they can produce a novel property that emerges from the system as a whole.
  • Boundary: Boundary defines what is part of the system and what is part of its environment.
  • Coupled with the Environment: System influences the environment and is also influenced by it.
  • Dynamic: systems change over time and attempt to maintain stability through feedback.
  • Real or mental construct: Systems can be real or mental constructs.
  • Perspective: A system can be interpreted from various perspectives.
Systems Diagram
Figure 2: System Interactions and Feedback Mechanisms

How is systems thinking transdisciplinary?

The academic and business worlds are often compartmentalized by discipline, with experts focused on their own discipline. In this business world, this could be HR, finance, or marketing, to name a few typical departments. While this is a logical organizational approach, reality does not always recognize these boundaries.

Systems thinking is a transdisciplinary approach and provides a common language for other disciplines to share their insights and promote effective communication.

What is meant by the term "wicked problem"?

A “wicked problem” is a term introduced by Rittel and Webber in their 1973 paper to describe complex, multifaceted issues that are difficult to define and challenging to solve as listed in figure 3. 

Characteristics of wicked problems
Figure 3: Characteristics of wicked problems

These problems possess unique characteristics, such as the absence of a definitive formulation, no clear stopping rule, and solutions that are not objectively true or false but subjectively good or bad. Wicked problems also lack immediate or ultimate tests for evaluating solutions, have no finite set of potential solutions, and are essentially unique in nature. Additionally, they are often interconnected with other problems, can be explained in multiple ways, and hold planners or designers accountable for their decisions.

Some examples of wicked problems are technological disruptions and ethical implications, adapting to geopolitical uncertainties and economic volatility, building and maintaining a diverse and inclusive workforce, balancing short-term profitability with long-term sustainability goals, reputational risks and managing crises, which demand interdisciplinary collaboration, innovative thinking, and adaptive strategies to address effectively.

The concept of wicked problems highlights the challenges and complexities involved in tackling some of the most pressing issues facing society today.

Why do organizations need systems thinking?

The fast-paced and volatile world of today presents us with wicked problems. The traditional management tools and problem-solving methods are now obsolete, even dangerous, to the long-term success of organizations. Leaders need to respond to these challenges not just today but every day, ensuring that their organization is at the vanguard of technological, social, and economic change – all while operating more effectively and efficiently than competitors.

Systems thinking recognizes the interconnectedness of all elements in a system. Unlike traditional linear thinking, which views problems as isolated and independent, systems thinking acknowledges the complex relationships between different parts of a system. It helps understand the dynamics of the situation, observe patterns and recognize the structures that produce them. It encourages people to view issues from multiple perspectives and design intervention strategies that seek to improve the problem situation.

What is the importance of systems thinking for leaders, managers, and professionals?

Leading in today’s fast-paced and ever-changing business world is no easy feat. Leaders and managers are confronted with an array of challenges, all of which require adaptability, agility, and the ability to think on their feet. In particular, they must navigate an increasingly interconnected global economy, which is marked by volatility and uncertainty.

Systems thinking improves our ability to respond to complexity
Figure 4: Systems thinking improves our ability to respond to complexity

Additionally, the emergence of new technologies demands constant innovation and a willingness to embrace change. At the same time, managing risks, attracting top talent, and balancing the demands of diverse stakeholders can present a complex juggling act.

Systems thinking can help leaders to navigate these challenges while remaining focused on their core mission and guiding their organizations toward long-term success. 

What are the key concepts in systems thinking?

Systems thinking provides a powerful set of concepts and vocabulary and a whole way of thinking that is a direct counterpoint to the classic management school era. Below, we’ve listed a few key systems thinking concepts:

  • Emergent properties
  • Multiple perspectives
  • Boundary critiques
  • Holism
  • Modelling
  • Relationships
  • Feedback
  • Structures
  • Open and closed systems
  • Analysis and Synthesis

What are the main methodologies and approaches in systems thinking?

Systems thinking as a practice encompasses a range of approaches that align with diverse theoretical frameworks and can be applied to various problem contexts. Here are some examples of these approaches:

  • Soft Systems Methodology (SSM)
  • Critical System Heuristics (CSH)
  • System Dynamics (SD)
  • Viable System Model (VSM)
  • Interactive Planning (IP)
  • Strategic Assumption Surfacing and Testing (SAST)
  • Team Syntegrity (TS)
  • Critical Systems Thinking (CST)
A pragmatic approach to systems practice
Figure 5: A pragmatic approach to systems practice

Uncover the full spectrum of Systems Thinking concepts—visit our glossary page for an extensive list of key terminologies. Click here to deepen your understanding!

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