Systems Thinking

March 1, 2012

I don’t much like labels – perhaps because the work I do has never fallen neatly into any available labels.  But one label I was recently given, I do quite like: systems thinker. “Systems thinking  is the process of understanding how things influence one another within a whole.”  Here’s another perspective on systems thinking with a list of ’17 practices’ to clarify the concept  (I love that one of these is Being Comfortable with Ambiguity).

Having been a ‘multidisciplinary’ international relations student, and then practitioner, I’ve always taken an integrative approach, looking at what links to what. Systems thinking can help bridge the gaps we so often see among artificially created silos by bringing together creative thinkers and doers wherever they may be and however they may have been labeled (academics, corporate executives, NGO practitioners, social entrepreneurs, etc…etc…).  As we go through this period of realizing that major system transformation is needed, I’ve been wondering  how we can we use systems thinking better, even by those who don’t necessarily see themselves as system thinkers?  What questions can help to push our thinking?

If you haven’t been in the habit of asking questions, give it a try!

Here are some that I have found useful:

  • Where else can we learn from?
  • What do we want to understand better?
  • Who else should be involved?
  • What else may be connected? Influenced by our hoped for outcomes?
  • Who might feel the consequences of our taking certain actions?
  • What assumptions are we making that we can challenge?
  • Can we track our discussions visually (graphically, through images) or in a different way to gain new perspectives?
  • What might link to what? Is there a puzzle piece missing?