A very short overview and introduction to systems thinking
Last month I gave a short presentation introducing systems thinking to a plenary session as part of the the “Redesigning for a Sustainable Future” post-COVID week-long Summer Academy course, run by the United Nations Systems Staff College. The presentation is provided below as an inline version, along with a following summary of the content. The presentation has two main sections. The first section briefly outlines what systems thinking is and where we might use it to help us better understand complex decision making environments, especially addressing issues often often referred to as “wicked” problems. The second section introduces some underpinning concepts and systems thinking tools. A downloadable PDF version of the presentation is available.
The photos used in the presentation acknowledge that it was provided within the health and well being theme, but the concepts and tools are equally applicable in other complex settings such as sustainable development, agriculture, climate change, biodiversity and natural resource management.
What is systems thinking
It begins by outlining what systems thinking is, and also highlights a couple of reports that indicate where international agencies and public sector organizations are moving towards systems thinking to deal with complex (or ‘wicked’) problems. These settings remind us that we need systems thinking to deal with complex challenges that:
- go beyond range of any one team, department or organization to manage them,
- are often characterized by disagreement about causes, and how to tackle them,
- recognize the need to change behavior or practice at multiple levels and scales (individuals to organizations),
- require innovative solutions that can be adapted in the light of experience and feedback.
The introductory session also reminds us that framing is important to systems thinking. It can be useful to begin inquiries by clarifying where you are going and taking care to involve the right people in that process. This acknowledges the importance of linking systems thinking with futures and design thinking to help people develop a collective response to developing constructive change. The presentation also distinguishes simple, complicated and complex problems. The solutions to simple and complicated problems don’t work as well with complex problems, however. Complex problems involve too many unknowns and too many interrelated factors to reduce to blueprints, rules and processes. In these settings we need to become skilled at separating problems from symptoms to enable us to invest our efforts in the right areas.
Concepts and tools
The second section of the presentation provides some definitions, and sets out four key system thinking components – things to look out for as we look to describe and understand complex system settings. These are:
- multiple perspectives – from all the different people who have a stake in the system,
- interconnections that link the different parts of the system,
- boundaries that help us ensure we are all talking about the same system, or sub-system,
- influences that affect the dynamics of the system.
The iceberg model is shown as a systems thinking tool designed to help an individual or group discover the patterns of behavior, supporting structures, and mental models that underlie a particular event. It is called an iceberg model because most of the system is hidden under the water line (like an iceberg). Looking beyond individual events, it helps us look for for correlating patterns (like trends over time). These provide clues to help us understand the system structures that lie below those patterns. Structures are the relationships and feedback loops inside a system. These structures are in turn based on the underlying mental models of people, organizations and societies. Events and patterns show you what is happening. Structures and mental models tell you why it’s happening. Importantly, the deeper you can go in the model, the more leverage you’ll have.
Understanding the system includes tools for making the different systems and their component visible (maps, rich pictures, timelines, computer models, etc.), and identifying leverage points to improve things. However, there isn’t really any one tool or method that encapsulates systems thinking – rather you need to mix and match among a range of methods to explore the compel systems setting(s) that you are interested in. Systems thinking also involves finding appropriate ways of making sense of these explorations via problem structuring and other strategic planning tools. Finally, the presentation takes the iceberg model and shows how it can be used to link systems thinking with futures and design thinking. We have seen (above) how systems thinking helps us unpack constructively unpack complex problem settings. Futures thinking can also use the iceberg model to provide a building block for moving forward – asking the question where do we want to go, and reimagining how our future could be. And, design thinking highlights the steps that focus on helping us design solution pathways and transform our current situation.
More information on related approaches, tools and methodologies can be found through the linked LfS pages on systems thinking, design thinking and systems thinking tools. Other pages point to resources on topics such as guides to help initiate and manage multi-stakeholder processes, managing participation – including marginalized voices, facilitation tools and reflective practice. Allied topics include supporting constructive practice change, strategic planning and scenario development.
An independent systems scientist, action research practitioner and evaluator, with 30 years of experience in sustainable development and natural resource management. He is particularly interested in the development of planning, monitoring and evaluation tools that are outcome focused, and contribute towards efforts that foster social learning, sustainable development and adaptive management.