Practical Systems Thinking: Working Definitions

Systems Thinking is a field that brings many different perspectives on science, philosophy, sociology and design, and while this diversity adds richness, it also sews confusion.

You might have heard about something called Systems Thinking (and read about it among the many posts on Censemaking) but don’t really know what it is in practice. Let’s take a look at what it is and how it’s represented.

Systems Thinking (In Capitals and Not)

I recently wrote about the practice of systems thinking to help those professionals who were unsure where to start. I shared this on platforms like LinkedIn and Twitter, and it’s fair to say that it generated a lot of attention. Thousands of views and dozens of comments later, it seems I struck a chord with what I wrote. Alas, it wasn’t the start of a tune I’d hoped for.

Among the comments were critiques and suggestions on how my perspective didn’t align with certain academic theories, models, schools of thought, and viewpoints. Almost none dealt with the practical aspects of systems thinking for those not familiar with a larger field of practice.

With that in mind, I thought it would be worth addressing what I see as the difference between Systems Thinking in capitals (a scholarly-driven and transdisciplinary field) and systems thinking without capitals (the act of thinking about systems in general practice).

In both of these contexts, the term systems thinking is a bit of a misnomer as it is more than thinking and involves means of inquiry and action, too.

The Field of Systems Thinking

The issue with my post was that most commentators came from a perspective that was more of one — Systems Thinking in capitals — than what I was trying to do.

Systems Thinking (in capitals) is a field that has many branches, schools of thought, methods and other conventions. There is much debate over what is to be included under this umbrella and how it’s transdisciplinary perspective is best presented. I’m not interested in taking sides in this debate but rather presenting possible options for people to consider. Some will take issue with this as they may feel there are rules to be followed and conventions that need to be applied. Not me.

This field brings together research from such diffuse scholarly disciplines as physics, economics, biology, psychology, engineering, education and more. Some refer to it as transdisciplinary, and others — like me — refer to it as a field. Either way, it’s a culmination of many different scholarly perspectives that involves methodologies, science, practice, and education and a language that reflects this kind of diversity.

Systems Thinking (Small Caps)

I prefer to focus on ways to think about systems. This isn’t exclusive to the previous description but doesn’t necessarily involve it. My reasoning is simply that the organizations I work with are busy, in need of solutions to help them work better and be effective, and want to avoid getting bogged down in nomenclature and models that may not be useful to them in their context.

I use the following to define systems thinking:

Thinking about systems involves identifying and understanding relationships between things and their implications about what has meaning and value within a context.

By relationships, we mean two or more things that are connected and affect one another in some way – even if it’s by simply existing.

Context refers to a space, a time, and a situation that has some kind of boundaries. We might call a system an organization, a community, or a sporting event. Each of these has boundaries. We could make the boundaries bigger and include entire markets, geographic regions, or practice domains. We can make them smaller, too by focusing on a craft, practice, site, or role.

For example, we might ‘bound’ an organization by those who are in paid employment for a legal entity. Others might bound it by including only those who are working at present (e.g., no one on leave, vacation, etc..), while some might include in that system alumni (e.g. retired staff), contractors, or partners. How we bound a system depends on who’s interested and their intentions.

The last component is that systems involve perspectives: who decides what boundaries we use, what has meaning, and what is valued. Perspectives matter because what has meaning and value is subjective and highly dependent on the context we find ourselves in. Our intentions or the purpose of a system — as we define it for ourselves — can shape what that system is and is not. As such, our intentions and perspectives are of importance to systems thinking in any form.

How we identify relationships, the roles we see them playing, the value they have, the meaning created by them, and the way we frame them are all part of what makes systems thinking so varied. What we think about, how we think about things, and what kind of sense we make from it all can vary from context to context. It’s why systems thinking is largely a bespoke endeavour: it’s not something we can use highly rigid practices most of the time.**

(** certain highly ordered and tightly bound systems might allow for this. Many engineering contexts, for example, have what is known as closed systems where we can predict, control, and apply strict methods to understanding. This is typical in some mechanical systems. These are not indicative of most, if any, human systems)

So what is a system is determined by our perception of what’s going on and our mindset about how to organize what we sense.

Systems Practice

What Systems Thinking (in capitals) refers to is a series of academic-supported ways to perceive, interpret, and represent systems. Professionals and experts working in this area often call this modelling. Gene Bellinger has an entire YouTube channel (and many writings) devoted to ways to model and bring systems to life. He can show you the simple elegance of modelling firsthand.

We typically visualize systems because the sheer volume of content is difficult to retain in our heads. That’s what models allow us to do. They also allow us to share and communicate our perspectives on what we mean when we speak of a system. I might have a perspective on something different than someone else. Models allow us to visualize relationships and explain to ourselves and others how they might work. We can ‘play’ with models, adapt them, and add to them as we learn more about whatever system it is that we’re seeking to understand. We can compare models among people and perspectives.

My recommendation for using systems thinking is not to get caught up in the specifics (not at first). Modelling and visualizing are important, but it matters less how you do it than the fact that you do it. Start sketching and drawing — here are some starting points.

There are ways in which systems operate and organize, and something like the Cynefin Framework is a tool that can help you make sense of what is going on. Explore, ask questions, and use your senses. The term systems thinking can be useful: we sense and think about what we see, perceive, experience, and engage with around us.

Starting With Systems: References

There are many different schools of thought and methods that are designed to help people understand systems that you can learn if interested. Two books I’d highly recommend for practitioners looking to learn more about these different schools of thought and some of the methods and tools associated with them are:

Michael Jackson‘s 2003 book Systems Thinking: Creative Holism for Managers. (available as a PDF).

Bob Williams and Richard Hummelbrunner‘s 2010 practitioners guide Systems Concepts in Action.

The Systems Thinker site has useful resources, too

There is a LOT out there to read if you want to go down that road. The number of books, websites, tools and groups are many for the person that wants to learn more about both capital and non-capital letter systems thinking.

As I mentioned in my starting out article, try engaging in three activities first. As you get used to trying out different boundaries, perspectives, and positions, you’ll start to find ways in which systems thinking can help you to see and understand situations and contexts differently.

Hopefully, this new perspective can benefit your strategy and action, and that’s where Systems Thinking — with or without capitals — might help you even further.

If you’re interested in learning more, starting out and could use some help in applying it to your organization, let’s meet over a coffee and discuss how I might help you.

Image Credits: All by Aedrian on Unsplash (here),(here) and (here)

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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.

One thought on “Practical Systems Thinking: Working Definitions

  • May 17, 2022 at 10:39 pm
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    From my perspective this is right on target, “identifying and understanding relationships between things and their implications about what has meaning and value within a context” regardless of what you’re doing or what you choose to call it! Oh, and thanks for reference to my sites!

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