I’m odd in that I love systems — system thinking and system design. Before you skip on, give me a chance to show why systems thinking is so fascinating. If you’re still not interested at the end, hit reply to send me an email and I’ll refund your money for this issue.
Systems thinking will magnify your ability to create, solve problems, and do just about anything that matters… better. In my last essay
I spoke about new software tools that let you create your own software applications without coding. To do this effectively, you need to be able not only to format the tools, but shape them around a coherent system. So system design will be essential for these next-generation software platforms. It will empower you to build a life operating system for yourself.
Systems thinking will also enable you to see causal relationships that most others are missing. You will bring new ideas and powerful insights to any discussion.
So let’s dive in.
“Systems Thinking” Core Concept
All systems are part of larger systems, and every system is defined by its function in the larger system. A car is not defined by its components (engine, tires, doors, seats), but by what it does within the larger transportation system (gets you from point A to point to B with a certain speed, effort level, comfort, carrying capacity, etc….). It’s compared with other systems (buses, subways, airplanes) by how they each fit into the overall transportation system.
A system divided into component parts cannot function. Its worthwhile properties (its functions) derive from the interactions of its parts, not its parts taken separately. “Analytical thinking”, in contrast to “systems thinking”, is the more common approach in our society. In analytical thinking, you study the various component parts. Once you know each, you integrate them into an understanding of how the whole works. But if you apply analytics to a system (i.e., study the individual parts), the system loses its essential properties. And so do its parts. It loses its function and how it fits into the larger system. Broken into parts, the thing of interest in your system does not exist. The only way to understand a thing of any complexity is to look at it in its entirety and see how it functions within the system it operates within.
So, systems thinking is looking at the world as a series of interconnected ecosystems orbiting and interacting with each other over time. With this approach you’re looking for patterns rather than identifying individual facts. When you see the world this way, endless new insights reveal themselves.
Furthermore, you will find consistent patterns at various detail levels within a system, both micro and macro — and across disciplines. They’re essentially fractal patterns (a topic for another day, but if interested see my exploration of fractals in this video
Systems thinking is essential to address many global problems such as cybersecurity, food/water supply, climate change, migration and immigration, corporate politics (or any politics), and economics. It’s a valuable approach for more ordinary daily circumstances as well. Any organizational, business, family, or social issue can benefit from this type of thought.
To clarify how rare systems thinking is in modern society, let’s take a look at the standard approaches. The more common methods go by terms such as analytical thinking, reductionist thinking, linear thinking, or mechanical thinking. The unifying element among them is applying a set of simplifying assumptions to make the issue more manageable. It’s an understandable impulse given the complexity of the modern world.
The reductionist approach breaks everything down. It studies parts, then extrapolates to an understanding of the whole — presuming that the functionality is merely the sum of the parts. And it makes simplifying assumptions that are often not good models of the real world. This typical approach leaves us with the same old obvious explanations. Starting with limited frameworks, we end up with limited solutions.
A Way of Seeing the World
Even framing the idea of “systems” and “systems thinking” is itself reductionist and guilty of this component thinking. Steve Easterbrook, computer science professor at the University of Toronto, puts this discussion in perspective:
My favourite definition of a system, from Gerald Weinberg is “a way of looking at the world”. In a sense, systems aren’t “out there” in the world, waiting to be studied. Systems are a convenient mental tool for making sense of how things in the world interact with one another. This means there’s no such thing as the “climate system”, just lots of interacting thermodynamic and chemical processes. That we choose to call it a ‘system’, name its parts, and treat it as a whole, is a convenience. But it’s a very useful one, because it offers rich insights for understanding, for example, how human activities alter the climate. Modelling the climate as a system means that we have to decide which clusters of things in the world to include in the models, and where we might usefully draw system boundaries. And if we’re doing this right, we ought to acknowledge that there are other ways of viewing these systems – no decision about where to draw system boundaries can ever be ‘correct’, but some decisions lead to more insights than others (compare with Box’s famous saying about models: “All models are wrong, but some are useful”)