Some thoughts on System Thinking

Last week I looked at some tools to help you tell the stories of your possible, probable and preferable futures. This week I want to touch on an important aspect of Future Studies, systems thinking.

Within the context of Future Studies, systems thinking helps us to:

  1. understand why things happen the way they do (what is known in systems thinking as “system archetypes”);
  2. identify interventions that can be made to a system to improve the future performance of the system; and
  3. tell the stories of our possible, probable and preferable futures by helping us to think about how the systems we design, will work.

More broadly though, I have also found that systems thinking is a useful tool to help with problem solving. In my experience, it happens all too often that people are concerned with their individual roles within a system, without considering the operation of the system as a whole. The problem with taking such a defensive position is that, if everyone is doing it, it can cause the system to stop working.

So, as with previous weeks, I would like to give you some introductory tools to help you to do some systems thinking of your own.

1. Um, what do you mean by “system”

Good question! A system is a set of things that are connected in such a way that they produce their own patterns of behaviour over time. In addition to having their own behaviours, all systems have a purpose. When analysing any system, you need to know what the purpose of the system is, to be able to know whether the system is functioning properly or not.

So, for example, think of a radiator. If a room is cold (and the heating system is on, which always helps, trust me), the thermostat will switch the radiator on and the room will start heating up. Once it reaches a targeted temperature, the thermostat will switch the radiator off. Once the radiator has cooled down a bit, the thermostat will switch the radiator back on again. So the system keeps going to maintain the ideal room temperature. But if the heating system is not switched on, the room will not heat up, which means the system isn’t working and won’t be achieving the purpose it’s designed to achieve.

2. Components of a System

The basic building blocks of any system are the “stocks” of the system. The stocks of a system will either be intangible or tangible, depending on the nature of the system you’re working with. The system’s stocks are, in turn, connected by “interconnections” or “flows”. Again, depending on the nature of the system, these flows can either be intangible or tangible.

So, for example, if you think about a system like the capacity of a department to deal with its workload: as more work accumulates on people’s desks, so they are less likely to be able to deal with all of the work promptly, which in turn affects the department’s ability to meet deadlines, which in turn affects the quality of the department’s work.

Each of the following elements would be a stock of the system: the people, the pile of work, the deadlines and the quality of your work. Each of these stocks, in turn, is connected to another by a flow. In this case though, the flows could be a mixture of tangible (the physical paperwork) and intangible flows (the information flowing in the system).

3. Types of Systems

So now that we’ve identified the basic building blocks of a system, we need to consider how all the pieces fit together.

There are two basic types of systems:

  1. positive feedback loops: these are systems that reinforce themselves as they operate. For example, the department discussed above that can’t handle the volume of work. Most companies would love their profits to be a positive feedback loop; and
  2. negative feedback loops: these are systems that try to balance themselves as they operate. For example, a radiator.

When looking at a system, you need to be able to identify not only the purpose of the system, but also what type of system you’re dealing with. There’s not much use in trying to deal with a system that you think is a negative feedback system, when in fact it’s a positive feedback system, as these two types of systems behave completely differently.

4. Leverage

To change the way a system behaves, you need to look at what changes you can make that would have an impact on the system.

But what types of changes will actually have an impact? Invariably, I’ve found that trying to make big changes to a system is equivalent to hitting your head against a brick wall. Rather, you need to identify areas of the system where you can use leverage to make the biggest changes, with the least effort. This is best done by observing the system working as a whole as it can be difficult to identify the nature of the system just by looking at its individual parts.

It’s important to realise that a system causes its own behaviour. An outside event may trigger the behaviour of a system, but ultimately the system behaves the way it’s designed to behave. This (obviously) means that different systems will react differently to the same event.

So, in the example of the system of the department that is struggling to deal with its workload, one simple change that you could implement would be to get more people working in the department. The more people there are doing the work, the more the department will be able to handle the workload. In fact, with the additional people, the department will be able to handle an even bigger workload, which means that at some point more people will have to be brought in to handle the even bigger workload … and so the system keeps reinforcing itself.

However, as with most things in life, there will be delays in the system. So, although you have brought more people into the department to handle the workload, their ability to be effective may be limited until such time that they have received the proper training. This means that until the people are properly trained, the department still won’t be able to handle the workload. This highlights the importance of factoring in the impact of delays on the system.

5. Simplicity versus complexity in systems

The art of systems thinking lies in seeing through the detailed complexity of the system to the underlying structures generating change. Systems thinking does not mean ignoring the details. Rather, it means organising the details of a system into a story that highlights the causes of problems and how they can be remedied in a lasting way. It’s about seeing patterns where others only see events and force to react to.

This blog has pretty much been a crash course in systems thinking. I will be returning to systems thinking over the coming weeks and dealing with some of these points in greater detail. For the moment though, we need to start putting together the scenarios about our possible, probable and preferable futures.

Thought from the Lifeguard’s Hut

You should be looking at the individuals the system is supposed to serve, instead of seeing the whole things as just a power game

– Steve Bolsin

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