What is systems thinking?

Most of us have been educated with analytical thinking; breaking things down into components and understanding how the components work or function. Systems thinking is different in recognising that the interaction between components determines the behaviour of the system. Let’s get to the point and clarify what a system is. Dr Russel Ackoff articulates this in a concise way.

A system is a whole consisting of two or more essential parts. Each of those parts interact with one or more other parts. The set of parts can be considered to be within a boundary (determined by the observer). The system interacts with the environment (a larger system) outside its boundary. A system is defined by its function within the larger system of which it is a part.

The parts of the system have three properties:

  • Each part of the system can affect the behaviour or properties of the whole.
  • The way each part affects the whole depends on what at least one other part is doing.
  • If you group parts together (a sub-system), this group has the properties of a system.

Dr Russell Ackoff makes the following points:

  • No part of a system has an independent effect.
  • The properties of the system are a product of the interactions of the parts, not the action of the parts taken separately. No part of the system has the essential characteristic that defines the system. The whole system has behaviours that arise from the interaction of the parts.
  • If you deconstruct a system into its parts, the properties of the system are lost.
  • A system cannot be explained by analysing it (taking it apart). A different pattern of thought is required: synthetic thinking (putting things together). Analysis can tell you how a system works, but it won’t provide understanding of why it works. Explanations lie outside the system.
  • For management, when you improve the performance of parts of a system separately, you do not improve the performance of the system as a whole and are very likely to decrease it. This is counter-intuitive to management thinking of divide and conquer. The performance of a system depends on how the parts interact, not how they act separately.

The implications of these concepts is profound for an analytical thinker.

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