I have been asked many times, ‘what do you mean by systems thinking?’
A concept which influences my work, doctoral research and day-to-day thinking, my relationship with ‘systems thinking’ spans two decades. Its most recent emphasis in the principles of ‘Harmonious Entrepreneurship’, as promoted with my co-founder Professor David A. Kirby.
It isn’t easy to pin down a succinct definition of system thinking. Coined by Barry Richmond in 1987, and rooted in Ludwig Von Bertalanffy’s General Systems Theory and cybernetics, it has evolved over the decades and through many schools of thought. Systems are all around us -be they interpersonal relationships, engineering projects, economies, transport or school systems, or organisations and ecological communities. In general terms, systems thinking, says Arnold & Wade (2015) is concerned with:
- elements (characteristics)
- interconnections (the way characteristics relate to and/or feedback into each other) &
- a function or purpose
A common goal for system thinkers is to “improve the capability of identifying and understanding systems, predict their behaviours, and devise modifications to them to produce desired effects” (Arnold & Wade, 2017). Permutations on the utility of ‘systems thinking’ is provided by Bosch et al. (2019):
• A system of thinking about systems
• A way of looking at, learning about, and understanding complex situations
• A way of seeing and talking about reality that helps us better understand and work with systems to influence the quality of our lives
• A new way of thinking to understand and manage complex problems
Systems thinking thus provides means to view issues holistically, with insight to see unobvious connections between things while understanding why they behave a certain way. Although a caveat does exist, in that holistic thinking can never be infinite and complete – a boundary will be drawn somewhere (Cabera, 2015). A system as a whole will have properties, behaviours and characteristics that emerge from the interaction of the components of the system which are not predictable from an understanding of the components alone (IIBA, 2015). Several common themes which underpin this ‘seeing’ include synthesis, emergence, interconnectedness and feedback loops, all of which set it apart from ‘linear thinking’.
Systems Thinking is fundamentally about relationship and processes – it affords for the understanding of the whole and the parts at the same time, recognising the relationships and connections that make up the dynamics of the whole – Acaroglu, 2017
One of my favourite ways to view systems thinkers is to think of two types of scientists: splitters and lumpers. Splitters are those who reduce the whole into parts, examining manageable bites for analysis. Lumpers are the integrators, that like to put parts together (Cabrera & Colosi, 2012) Systems thinking is the act of not accepting this duality, and of being a “splumper” (Schwandt & Ryan, 2018).
My first professional role involved training as a Kaizen Engineer, a specialist in ‘lean thinking’ at Unipart’s manufacturing and logistics operations in Oxford. “Lean is a set of principles to create the conditions to think more deeply and learn by constantly trying to improve things and seek a better way, small step by small step.” (Ballé et al., 2019). Although systems thinking and lean are championed by different sets of practitioners, they are based on similar insights. My understanding of systems theory to support organisational change at university assisted with my adoption of ‘Unipart’s lean techniques’ which included the spotting of the potential impact of feedback loops and unintended consequences in operational designs. Systems thinking helped with the ‘lean thinking,’ and the lean techniques helped with practically applying systems thinking to improve system performance across Unipart’s operations.
My ‘system thinking’ continued to reinforce the transferability of lean principles to many other sector environments as my career unfolded. It was no surprise, as I migrated from business improvement into academia I was predisposed to economic, social and thinking models that consider systems as chaotic and complex rather than ordered and deterministic; where behaviour cannot be fully described with certainty. A disposition to be further reinforced studying ‘Complexity Theory’ prior to, and during preparatory modules of my doctorate, solidified the view ‘everything is connected’ (Barbarsi, 2003). It became a way of approaching social science dilemmas that encouraged ‘engaging with the tension between the search for general theory and the desire for contextual and specific understandings‘ (Walby, 2003). As I became more interested in sustainability themes, this translated into championing complex problem solving and transitioning to the Circular Economy and nature-based principles. But in addition to the biological science, a personal spiritual dimension was unfolding – that our ways of seeing and ways of being are profoundly affected by our interior condition (Stroh, 2015).
Timed with the start of my doctoral hermeneutic phenomenology journey, I came to learn systems thinking and phenomenology share an epistemological focus i.e. relating to the study of nature, origin, and human knowledge (Georgiou, 2003). This helps with questions such as ‘how do I know about the outside world?’ ‘how do I know my senses are not fooling me?’ and ‘what constitutes evidence about the world?’ (OpenLearn, 2020). Thinking back and forth, between the system as a whole and its components is also found within hermeneutic phenomenology. Just as a healthy part-whole balance is a necessary for systems thinking, the hermeneutic interpretation of data gathered arises from pre-understandings, and a dialectical movement between the parts and the whole of participant texts. Each part is interpreted according to the sense and unity of the whole.
And so, my commitment to systems thinking continues, up to my present-day focus which involves championing entrepreneurship to help facilitate the development of crucial 21st-century skills for our learners, and to fast-tracking the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Systems thinking is by no means magic. It is a perspective. It helps us to think better (Harter et al., 2004)
Application & link to the sustainability agenda
Systems thinking has been used in many fields, from medical, environmental, political, economic, to educational. There is increasing appetite for it in a world facing complex issues which exhibit uncertainly, ambiguity, emergence and non-linearity. There is a zeitgeist to reject the linear model approaches which have dominated since the beginning of the third industrial revolution. There is increasing acceptance that everything is connected ecologically and interdependently; that actions in one area frequently lead to problems in another. This is supported by other system thinking concepts such as Ashby’s ‘Law of Requisite Variety’ (1968) which governs the capacity of a system to respond to changes in its environment, and implies that only variety can absorb variety. Simply, ‘it is not possible to address any problem by addressing just one facet” (Kirby & El-Kaffass, 2021).
For us to achieve true sustainability, according to Bosschaert& van Zuthem (2018), a system must hit the right balance between resilience, autonomy (self-sufficiency), and harmony. Systems thinking nurtures a way of thinking, for some even a philosophy, that cultivates an ethic of integration and collaboration (Hammond, 2005). This has the potential to help modern humans live more harmoniously and sustainably. Despite the growth of Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG) in helping measure the sustainability and societal impact of business, and the use of John Elkington’s Triple Bottom Line (TPL) based on People, Planet and Profit (3Ps) (FT Lexicon, 2020), accountants and reporting consultants continue to ‘bury the single bottom line paradigm’. As Elkington himself lamented, “the TBL was never intended as ‘just an accounting system’ […but] a triple helix of change for tomorrow’s capitalism, with a focus was on breakthrough change, disruption, asymmetric growth and the scaling of next-generation market solutions’.
New hopes arise from harmonious entrepreneurship entities and likes of those certified as B Corps, those who balance purpose and profit, and apply the tools and methods of whole-systems thinking around their economic, social and environmental practices. Despite the proliferation of positive entrepreneurship tackling daunting social, eco and humane challenges, systems thinking can be missing (Leonard, 2016). For maximum scale and scope of the positive impact, it is essential that the systems thinking mindset is incorporated from the outset, to understand and plan for the interactions and linkages within, and the connections between the enterprise and the different stakeholders with which it interacts. “It involves thinking about how an enterprise operates within a specific, broad system, such as the immediate ecological environment or the social strata present in a society, and interpreting the needs and limitations of that system in the decision-making process using an ESG lens” (ibid.). Failure to consider the broader system from an ESG perspective will reduce its positive impact whilst potentially limiting its success and growth.
A long answer to the ‘what is systems thinking’ I suspect, but mine nonetheless!
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Arnold, R.D. & Wade, J.P. (2015). ‘A Definition of Systems Thinking: A Systems Approach’, Procedia Computer Science, Volume 44, 2015, pp. 669-678.
Arnold, R.D. & Wade, J.P. (2017). ‘A Complete Set Of Systems Thinking Skills’, INCOSE, 20 (3), pp. 9-17.
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