My previous essay
examined how to do Systems Thinking, a powerful alternate way of looking at complex issues. I’m a huge believer in incorporating this approach, but it has shortcomings.
Today I’ll highlight the limitations of Systems Thinking so you can employ it knowing its blind spots, and then I’ll introduce Design Thinking. Design Thinking is often considered a competing philosophy, diametrically opposed to Systems Thinking. But the two can not only co-exist, they complement each other — filling in the limitations of the other.
Systems Thinking Pros
Systems Thinking has many capabilities. I’ve previously
highlighted some of of its tactical advantages. At a top level, its strengths include:
Issue Framing — Puts elements of any problem into context. Identifies where to focus improvement efforts. More accurate and holistic way of viewing any situation. Highlights the circular nature of the world and the fractal patterns that permeate everything we see and do.
Reveals Causal Patterns driving growth (or degradation) — Displays relationships between elements interacting in a system. Uncovers the cause-and-effect drivers.
Feasibility Predictor — Will the great idea you and your team came up with succeed? Systems Thinking gives you insight into how it will (or won’t) fit with market dynamics, resonate with diverse stakeholders, integrate with implementation processes, and align with other systematic dynamics.
Sustainability Predictor — Provides indications of a system’s likelihood of sustaining itself for extended periods, or reveals a system’s fragility and looming demise.
Systems Thinking Cons
However, we need to be aware of its shortcomings:
Analysis Paralysis — Systems Thinking requires time to assess what’s happening, both in the primary system of interest and in the overlapping systems that impact it. It requires pulling information from a wide range of sources, and can generate so much information that it’s confusing where to start and how to act on new initiatives. Much of this analysis is theoretical without an explicit end point.
Risk Aversion — Seeing all the complex dynamics at play can make one fearful that interfering with one domino could trigger a chain reaction of unintended consequences. This could instill a bias toward inaction out of fear.
Detachment — Typically people addressing a system exist within that system. It’s difficult to remove yourself and look at it objectively from the outside.
Theory vs Action — People skilled in the theoretical analysis involved with Systems Thinking are often not action-oriented doers. They reflect, analyze, ponder. That’s all good, but the ultimate purpose of Systems Thinking is typically to make a change for the better. At some point you need to move from theory to practice, and it can be hard to determine that point.
Design Thinking, on the other hand, provides a clear and explicit path of action. It’s all about making something, getting it done, and doing so in a thoughtful way. We can apply it to most any effort that has an end user beyond the creator. Systems Thinking takes a detached, objective perspective. In contrast, Design Thinking is human-centric and embraces a strong point of view (or many of them).
Design Thinking is highly focused on the end user, working off the assumption that the creator cannot assume or presume to know what’s needed. So it also starts with information collection, but it’s not studying endless circular loops and complex relationships. It focuses on the needs and preferences of a well-defined target groups of people. So the source of information is clear and easily attainable.
Design Thinking is micro while Systems Thinking is macro. Here’s the basic process:
Discover — Understand what it’s like in the end users shoes. Undertake a research period to learn about end users needs and desires.
Define — Take what you learned in #1, and shape thinking on what “it” needs to do. Determine the goal.
Explore/Ideate — Develop thoughts & ideas that will best achieve the goal you defined.
Prototype — Create initial models or implemented designs with the selected ideas applied.
Evaluate — What works well in the prototype, what does not. Have actual users interact with it and collect their feedback, observe their struggles and positive reactions.
Iterate — repeat any or all steps as necessary to refine and perfect.
This is action-oriented, and presents a clear path toward getting something implemented. It’s also empathetic, with a point of view focused on the human needs of end users. And it reduces risk by prototyping.
But the starting points of Design Thinking and Systems Thinking contradict each other. Design Thinking begins with an isolated component (the end user) and places a supreme value on that one component. Systems Thinking would have you evaluate the overall interactions, motions, and flows from input to output without any emphasis on any given element.
As a result, the two are often considered opposing philosophies.
I see an effective integration. Start with Systems Thinking. Even if you think you know a subject matter, begin with the Systems approach. Get a good grasp of the overall dynamics. Then move to the Design approach to implement.
How long you spend on the Systems analysis depends on (1) how much time you can afford to spend, and (2) how important it is to get it right — i.e., what are the stakes, what are the costs of mistakes.