Systems Thinking Practice: Starting Out

Systems thinking is a broad field that brings different branches of science together to focus on understanding how we organize and what the implications of that are. Learning what it is and how to use it is critical to understanding innovation.

I would argue that the best innovators and change-makers are systems thinkers (whether they know this or not). Systems thinking is very much what it sounds like: giving thought to the way things come together and are organized.

A system is an interconnected set of things that operate within a boundary. The boundary can be physical (e.g. a room), social (e.g., an organization), or environmental (e.g., planet Earth). Put these together, and you’re systems thinking.

Systems thinking involves understanding boundaries, positions (where we sit in the system) and a sense of purpose. Without knowing what context you’re in, where you’re located or why you’re looking at a system, it can’t be of much use. I’ve written about these issues before.

Setting Your Position: Boundaries

Systems are defined by their boundaries and the activities that take place within them. Without boundaries, we can’t organize things as there’s nothing to contain what we’re looking at. Boundary setting is an important and often underappreciated part of systems thinking. Boundaries are negotiated and rarely ever straightforward.

For example, even a physical setting like a room requires a boundary critique. Are we defining the room as the surface of the walls, ceiling, and floor or the actual material they use as well? What if there’s an HVAC system — does that make a difference to what comes in and out of the system? What about a window and the airflow? There are many contexts in which these issues are not moot. We need to clarify what is to be included and excluded in our system.

The general rule to guide boundary setting 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 lying outside of your boundaries, you’ve probably bound it too tightly.

Clarifying Intentions

Why are you interested in systems in the first place? Systems thinking isn’t a generic ‘thing’ — it’s context and purpose-bound. We want to understand a system because we believe that the interactions, boundaries, and positions we find ourselves matter to our understanding of what’s happening and what we might need to do. We’ve seen this with things like COVID-19 — something that operates within and across many geographic, institutional, biological and social systems.

There are myriad things to see and study in a system – so we need to clarify what we’ll focus on. Without a focus we’ll find ourselves sifting through connections and relationships that are meaningless to us and unhelpful, too.

Be open to changing this focus, but having one is critical. I’ve seen too many students and fellow practitioners get lost through data and visuals, producing lots of information with little meaning. Maps, visuals and models don’t provide value if there isn’t a point to them.

This, like boundary setting, takes some time, care, and attention to do well.

Visualize

It can’t be overstated how important it is to visualize your systems using whatever tools you have available. System maps and other visuals help us organize what we see, experience, and perceive in a system. There is simply too much information to reasonably attend to and process if we keep it in our heads.

Visualizations have the further benefit of allowing us to explore and test hypotheses about what we see. When we put things on paper, it allows others to constructively critique and interrogate it and propose alternatives. The Innovation Kit section on Cense.ca offers plenty of examples of how to do all of this.

None of this has to be elaborate or involve fancy, complicated software or tools. Pencils and paper or virtual whiteboards like Miro or using shapes and arrows in PowerPoint will work.

Relationships and Structures

We’ve all seen the iceberg models that illustrate the hidden forces underneath the surface. (If not, visit this earlier post to see an example and how it’s used.)

Systems thinking works when it allows you to see a bigger and more relational picture of what you’re interested in. It helps reveal the actors, the structures, the patterns, and the interactions between these things, as well as their implications and relationships. It’s not a ‘one-and-done’ kind of approach. Much like design thinking, it’s a practice that we engage in as we do our innovation and change-making work.

While it can get sophisticated and technical, it doesn’t have to. Getting acquainted with what it is, how we do it systematically, and feeling comfortable thinking, designing and strategizing with systems in mind will make a big difference to how you see the world and what you see when you look.

Looking to learn more about systems thinking or apply it to your work? Censemaking has archives (simply search the site), Cense.ca has tools and methods for its application, and the Cense Academy provides practical learning opportunities for leaders and professionals. Of course, we can also grab a coffee and figure out how I can help.

Image Credits: Dose Juice on Unsplash and charlesdeluvio on Unsplash

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Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

2 thoughts on “Systems Thinking Practice: Starting Out

  • May 12, 2022 at 4:44 pm
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    Camron, might one claim that the boundary is defined by the relevance of relationships? Oh, do you think it’s possible to rewrite this article without using the word “system” or the term “systems thinking?” The question is, how do you make all the meaningful things you said digestible by a 5th grader?

    Reply
  • Pingback: Practical Systems Thinking: Working Definitions - Censemaking

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