Thinking systemically about systems thinking

Carnaby Street

The Whole and the Parts

Systems thinking is a class of theories, models and methods for understanding human and non-human interactions as seen as wholes instead of parts. This focus on interconnections and relationships is precisely what makes it challenging for many when it comes to systemically considering what systems thinking is all about and the implications of this are many. This post provides an introduction to certain ideas in systems thinking and points to what makes it different than other non-systems thinking approaches to understanding something. 

Perhaps the most popular aphorism about systems thinking is the statement that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, something borrowed from Gestalt Psychology. That statement is intended to reflect system thinking’s principal focus on the system itself rather than on the actors and actions within it.

It’s a subtle difference, but a meaningful one. For example, psychology might look at why individuals make choices and act and what implications come from those actions. Systems thinking seeks to look at the combined interaction of these interactions as a unified whole.


Fundamental to this way of seeing things is the concept of boundaries. Boundaries are essentially where the differences that make a difference lie. In a closed system, everything that makes a difference is clearly contained and observed within a relatively solid set of boundary conditions. Mechanical systems often function this way, making them simple or complicated in that they have the potential to be understood clearly in terms of causal connections and relations. These systems are more amenable to things like “best practices” where we can reasonably expect similar outcomes from consistent actions.

This kind of systems thinking is not as useful when applied to human systems, because they are mostly characterized as open systems. Open systems are those where the boundaries require some form of negotiation and may actually be in flux.

A general shorthand rule for setting boundaries in this kind of environment is this:

If you find yourself lost over and again in trying to understand where the influences and relationships within the system are, then you’ve probably bound your system too loosely. If you are finding too many influences laying outside of your boundaries, you’ve probably bound it too tightly.

Perspective: Where you sit

Systems are all about where you sit in relation to them. For instance, let’s take the example of family and some of the boundary questions one might ask in understanding this social entity as a system.

  • Firstly, who is family? You could define family as blood relationships. But is that immediate blood relations? For example, If parents and children count, then how do we consider grandparents who are the parents of the parents? Do they count as family when you bound the system? Do great grandparents? Should we use genes and, if so, what level of genetic similarity do we share? Are we all family?
  • Can family be defined socially? For example, if people become family by marriage and that marriage breaks down, does it influence the family system as you define it? What if that marriage ends via someone passing away? What if they are not married at all, but common law?
  • What about the roles that people play? Does an “Uncle” or “Aunt” who are close, intimate friends of the family, but not of blood ties still get included in the family? How about a trusted lifelong neighbour who has been a part of someone’s life the entire time, but was never genealogically connected to anyone?
  • Can our neighbourhood be part of the family?

One can make a case for any of these conditions. In defining a system there is no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ way to do it, just perspectives that are more or less useful and more or less attentive to specific details.

Purposeful systems

The answers to the questions about boundaries also depend on what the purpose of the system is in the first place. Purpose is the means by which we determine the differences and how they make a difference. You can imagine that one could potentially answer “yes” to almost every one of the questions asked above depending on where someone sits in the system and what kind of purpose they see in that system.

Part of thinking systemically about systems is defining the purpose of the system and ascertaining a perspective. That means being strategic about what you wish your systems thinking to support. It is here that much of the use of systems thinking I’ve witnessed breaks down. Organizations seeking to employ systems thinking often jump in without doing the pre-work needed to ground their perspective into some sense of purpose and perspective. This requires a mindful, honest accounting of the perspectives being brought into the discussion and connecting those to the strategic intent of your enterprise.

Being mindful of what one values, what one seeks to accomplish, and what kind of activities your organization engages in (or wants to engage in), and where the reach of your organization extends is a key starting position to thinking more systemically about systems.

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