• Do well in the modern world: master the core skills you need for success

Systems Thinking

Living in the world of systems

Our life is unbelievably amazing and incredibly complex. We deal with hundreds of problems, trying to solve them with the help of knowledge we already possess. Sometimes this knowledge is enough, especially when we are talking about everyday issues, but sometimes we just have to find other ways to solve complicated problems.

Thus, we try to get new concepts or phenomena by making them as understandable for us as it is possible by simplifying and dividing them, searching for separate facts or tips. However, such approach isn’t as effective as it is simple.

Do you think it is easy to put together a jigsaw puzzle without knowing what picture we are going to get? No, it isn’t. We need to know the whole picture, the whole system and its behavior, in order to succeed. Every day we deal with systems, and not only at work or at school, but everywhere.

What should we know about systems

A system is a group of interdependent parts forming a complex whole with a particular purpose. If there are no interdependencies between the parts, then it is definitely not a system – it’s just a collection of parts.

Other distinctive features of a system are the presence of all its components and the order in which they are arranged, which isn’t important for independent units of a collection of parts.

Feedback is also a distinguishing characteristic of a system, as it provides the system with necessary information to inform it about problems that have to be solved so as to maintain system’s stability.

For example, if a coach in a basketball team fails to perform his duties, his team shows poor results; these results are the feedback that lets the general manager change coaching staff in order to improve system’s operation.

So systems thinking is the ability to understand the principle of operation of a system to maintain or stabilize its functioning.

Barry Richmond coined the term systems thinking in 1987 and explained its meaning as “the art and science of making reliable inferences about behavior by developing an increasingly deep understanding of underlying structure.” A key to understanding any behavior is knowing its purpose. It is easy to see in mechanical systems; for example, a toaster is made to toast bread, traffic lights are made to control flows of traffic, and so on.

However, it is much harder to deal with natural or social systems – people, animals, organisms, etc. – because we never know for sure what their design or purpose is (unfortunately, they go without manuals).

So the skills of systems thinking are crucial, as all of us are surrounded by people – in the family, in the team, in the classroom, at the office and so on.

Getting the whole picture

Systems thinking provides a deep insight of a problem, understanding its reasons. It also allows us to make decisions without only relying on the events that result in some consequences.

For example, if a student behaves improperly at school, a teacher may give him bad grades, temporary exclude from classes or just ignore such behavior, blaming this student for his actions.

However, a systems thinker would look for the reason of his improper behavior in the systems a part of which this student is – the class, the school, the family.

It takes much more time to do so, but if you want to succeed in any field of your professional or personal life, you have to know how everything works in order to make the right decisions (of course it easier to scold your children, to give F grades, to fire a worker or to close your business).

The linear cause-and-effect way of viewing the world around us (understanding that an action A causes B, B causes C, C causes D, and so on) can’t represent the whole picture when we are talking about complex systems.

There are a lot of tools which help to get the deep insight of complex issues. One of them is the feedback loop perspective, which sees the world not as a series of events that go one by one, but as an interrelated set of circular relationships (e.g. an action A causes B, B causes C, while C causes A, etc.)

Systems thinking as a requirement for being an expert

There are different levels of being a systems thinker; and, of course, it is possible to master this skill by practicing. Once you are aware of this concept, you are on your way to improving your abilities in this field.

Today, systems thinking experts are of primary importance while dealing with complex engineering systems such as rocket production, building ships, oil rigs or nuclear power plants, as well as running big companies or governing a country. They can use all the tools and create accurate simulation models which allows them to solve difficult technical and social system problems.

But being a novice, or having a deep awareness of systems thinking, allows one to think in terms of feedback loops, read or/and create causal flow diagrams, read simulation models, deal with medium difficulty social system problems.

The skills obtained by practicing systems thinking may be useful in solving easier problems, related to family, marriage or friendship responsibilities, controlling the execution of tasks and projects, and so on. You can make any system around you function properly; you just have to start understanding its behavior.

Y Skills Institute’s goal is to help everyone understand why the world we live in is so complicated, and how we can cope with it. Accepting the fact that we don’t see a true reality is the first step towards acquiring powerful skills that will let people live at peace with the world of systems.