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What is Systems Thinking?

The evolution of the system for thinking about systems.

“Vision without systems thinking, ends up painting lovely pictures of the future with no deep understanding of the forces that must be mastered to move from here to there.” ~Peter M. Senge, Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Working Definition

The system for thinking about systems.

Systems thinking is a discipline used to understand systems to provide a desired effect. It provides methods for “seeing wholes and a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static snapshots.” The intent is to increase understanding and determine the point of “highest leverage”, the places in the system where a small changes can make a big impact.

History

Over a half century old, Systems Thinking is essentially a system for understanding systems. It is focused on the relationships between a system’s components, not the components themselves. Systems thinking has roots in many fields, most notably in ecology and in biology regarding the study of living systems. The discipline has spawned more spinoffs than a hit sitcom having influences in the development of fields like systems dynamics, systems engineering and systems analysis. Modern systems thinking evolved from Systems Theory (hard systems). Its genealogy is complex and its origin is often determined by the field of study. Here are some notable players in the discipline of systems thinking:

Timeline

Early 20th Century – Ludwig von Bertalanffy

In the 1940s, Austrian biologist, Ludwig von Bertalanffy formulated the notion of General Systems Theory (GST). As a result of his foundational work in GST, he identified three categories of systems thinking: systems technology, systems science and systems philosophy. In 1954, Bertalanffy formed the Society of General Systems Research with Margaret Meade and Nobel Prize winners from economics, physiology, physics. This strand of systems thinking (hard systems) assumes that systems can be modeled and understood objectively and that social systems have identifiable goals, structures and behaviors that can be understood and designed.

1950s- Jay Forrester 

Systems Engineering is developed and focuses on designing or changing systems (originally applied to physical systems, then applied to human systems). Systems Analysis was developed around the same time, as a form of cost-benefit analysis. Both disciplines assume that an engineer or analyst can determine the ways to get to a desired state from the current state (hard systems).

In the 1950s, Dr. Jay Forrester of MIT created system dynamics, an approach to understanding the nonlinear behavior of complex systems over time using stocks, flows, internal feedback loops, table functions and time delays. Systems Dynamics uses a systems thinking approach to study and manage complex feedback systems as found in companies and other social systems.

1960s – C. West Churchman
In 1968, Churchman defines a minimal concept for systems thinking; in “The Systems Approach” he provides five basic considerations for thinking about systems:

  • the objectives and performance of the whole system
  • the system’s environment and fixed constraints
  • the resources of the system
  • the components of the system, their activities, goals and measures of performance
  • the management of the system

“…there is a good deal of turmoil about the manner in which our society is run. …the citizen has begun to suspect that the people who make major decisions that affect our lives don’t know what they are doing.” ~Charles West Churchman, 1968

1970s – Russell Ackoff

A Critical Systems thinking approach emerged via critiques from C. West Churchman, Russell Ackoff, and Peter Checkland. In the 1970s, there is a lot of focus on the modeling of systems and generating procedures for: describing a system, defining scenarios and situations, defining boundaries and perspectives, identifying inputs and outputs and creating visual representations of a system. Also, System Design originated in the 1970s and is based on the statement “the best way to learn a system is to design it.”

“Managers are not confronted with problems that are independent of each other, but with dynamic situations that consist of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other. I call such situations messes.” ~Russell Ackoff

1980s- Peter Checkland

Peter Checkland developed Soft Systems Thinking, a methodology for dealing with a problem that does not “lend itself to being quantified; in complex problem situations, messy, ill-defined, ill structured, not independent of people and where there may be no agreement about appropriate objectives (Daellenbach).” Soft Systems Thinking assumes the world is complex and the way to tackle the complexity of the real world is by using a learning system. The “system” is in the process of understanding the real world.

1990s – Peter Senge

Peter Senge of MIT publishes “The Fifth Discipline” which popularized systems thinking for management and organizational learning. Peter Senge is a senior lecturer at MIT and Founder of the Society for Organizational Learning.

“Systems thinking is a discipline for seeing the structures that underlie complex situations, and for discerning high from low leverage change …. Ultimately, it simplifies life by helping us to see the deeper patterns lying beneath the events and the details.”

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Kishau Rogers is the editor and founder of The bigThinking Project. The bigThinking Project is a resource center and collaborative innovation project which promotes the principles of systems thinking. Our mission is to empower the next generation of innovators to think bigger, to think better and to create solutions which make significant impact in the areas that matter. Kishau Rogers is an award-winning entrepreneur with over twenty years of experience in the computer science industry. She is a serial entrepreneur having founded and co-founded companies such as Websmith Group, TimeStudy, PeerLoc Inc., and Websmith Studio.

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