Systems Thinking Defined

By Eric A Denniston, Managing Director, Denner Group International

Takeaways: Five interrelated concepts explain Systems Thinking, an advanced method of critical thinking. It is a holistic, purpose-driven approach to solving everyday challenges.

Systems Thinking is an advanced method of critical thinking, which focuses on interdependence, relationships, and connectedness in addressing work and life issues.  This holistic, integrated, and more purposeful outcome-oriented approach can be described in five interrelated concepts:

1. The Seven Levels of Living Systems that are in natural hierarchical relationships with each other (systems within systems). These are Cell, Organ, Organism/Individual, Group/Team, Organization, Society/Community, and overarching System/Earth.

2. Standard and Predictable System/Organizational Dynamics based on 12 characteristics of open/living systems which come from general systems theory. These are: holism (the whole is not just Russian Nested Dollsthe sum of its parts); open system vs. a closed system (the human body is an open system, for example, because it is impacted by the environment in which it operates), boundaries (these distinguish the system from its environment- the body is an open, permeable, systems affected by air, water, sun, food, etc.); input-throughput/transformation-output (a car is an example of this, where gas is the input which the engine uses to move the car – the throughput – and the exhaust is the output); feedback (the information your body provides when you eat something that doesn’t agree with it, for example; multiple outcomes (in organizations, rarely is there just one desired outcome to a project, for example); equifinality (which suggests that different outcomes might be achieved by using different initial inputs in different ways); entropy (which suggests that projects/products eventually run out of steam and die unless they are continually fed by new packaging, ideas, directions, etc.); hierarchy (the concept that a system is composed of many subsystems each leading to the higher level; subsystems or components (this suggests that every system has at least two sub-components which make up the whole); dynamic equilibrium (which states that with continual inflows of materials, energy, and information, a system can remain in this state indefinitely, rather than suffer entropy); and internal elaboration (where open systems are continually evolving, changing and moving in the direction of higher levels of organization).

3. A circular “input-throughput-output-feedback loop” within our dynamic and ever-changing environment – such as the Haines Centre’s copyrighted Five Phases (A-B-C-D-E) of the Systems Thinking Framework.

4. Natural and historical “cycles of change” (copyrighted by The Haines Centre as the Rollercoaster of Change®) to assist senior management in being proactive, innovative, and more successful with their strategic and systematic change processes.

5. And, the Law of Unintended Consequences, also known as the six-sided “Rubik’s Cube Effect”or “archetypes” by Peter Senge. The Haines Centre has identified 40 of these common analytic situations that occur time after time, especially when a holistic approach  is not considered when solving issues or challenges.

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