Applying systems thinking to problem solving

What is a problem? An undesirable state or situation. If no people existed, how many problems would there be? Problems exist in people’s heads as a view of the real world.

Steps to solve a problem are typically suggested as:

  • Define the problem – constrain yourself to the actual issue.
  • Develop a plan – break the issue down into smaller problems that are more easily solved, until we are left with the actual cause of the problem.
  • Implement the plan
  • Evaluate the results – learn from what you experience and go round the cycle until the problem is solved.

But this approach is a product of analytical thinking and only effective for problems with isolated systems that are not highly interconnected with the external environment. It assumes that the cause of the problems lies within the system being analysed.

Systems thinking problem solving

Steps to solve a problem using systems thinking typically involve:

  • Select the system boundary where the defined problem is experienced. (This is not a trivial task.)
  • What is the purpose(s) of the system contained by the boundary? (Get some level of agreement on that. Again, not easy.)
  • Research the environment outside the system boundary and understand the interactions the external environment has with the system.
  • Identify the parts of the system and associated interactions between parts and the external environment.
  • What value (contribution to the system purpose) is added by internal parts?
  • When you get to this stage you will have insight as to what the cause of the problem is. It may be outside the system boundary. Add a dose of creativity and solutions will emerge.
  • Make changes to the system parts and evaluate results. (Remember when you change parts within a system you change interactions and therefore the characteristics of the whole system in ways you won’t be able to forecast. Best make small changes iteratively and learn.)

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