Systems Thinking

Suggested Reading

  • " The Fifth Discipline" by Peter Senge

Maybe you've heard the phrase "Think globally; act locally." If you want to change the world, that's how you can get things done. Small things done around you ripple out and change everything else. However, are the changes that you end up with the changes that you want?

Lots of times people act with good intentions, only to find that things don't turn out as they planned. I imagine that many of the social programs in the United States have turned out like this. The originators wanted to do something positive – end poverty, for instance – but instead found that poverty expanded and got deeper. Why do things like this happen?

I'd say that generally, things don't turn out as we'd like because we don't know enough about the systems in which we live. These aren't just limited to systems of government. Everything that we do is part of one or more systems and affects them all to a greater or lesser degree. If you really want to solve a problem, you have to learn to think in terms of systems.

For instance, as I was writing this, there was a fire in New Mexico that was started as a controlled burn. It got out of control and there was lots of unintended damage to the area, both to the forests and surrounding homes. In non-systemic thinking, people will try to hold someone responsible and punish them. However, that only treats the symptom. A better solution is to look at the whole system that led to the initiation of the controlled burn and improve it so the chances of another similar problem don't arise again. Blaming one or a few individuals only means that we have to rely on having outstanding people in the right positions. However, people make mistakes and we have to consider that as as a major constraint of the system.

What do you want to do? Do you want to fix problems permanently (or at least for a fairly long time) or do you want to fix them on a daily basis? If you want to fix problems for a long time, you have to learn to think about the systems in which the problem exists and about the systems that your solution affects. If you only focus on one system or one small piece of a system, it's likely that you're going to cause problems elsewhere or at a later time; that's an attribute of a system – effects that result from an action today may show up in some other place or some other time. It's like chasing a bump around a carpet; you push it down here, it pops up there, and you never do anything useful.