What is systems thinking? (Part II)


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I reckon that we cannot truly appreciate Georges Seurat’s painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte” by examining the individual dots he used to compose this masterpiece. It is not the sum of all its dots; it is the poetic relationships between them all that bring the scene to life.

In Part I of this article, I referred to worldviews: the beliefs and assumptions that shape us and our world. We can consider a worldview, or paradigm, to be a kind of intellectual bubble within which we live. When I said that systems thinking as a worldview is entirely different from analytical thinking, I did that for a reason. Any new paradigm, or worldview, will include and transcend some elements of the old. Some of the what was inside the old bubble will also sit within the new one, but there is still an essential “un-same-ness” between the old bubble and the new bubble. If we are systems thinkers, we don’t lose the ability (or valuing of) analytical thinking; we are, however, extending ourselves in our abilities to apply both when applicable. There may be something of a butterfly’s “essential being” that existed when it was a caterpillar, but I think we’d all agree that “caterpillar” and “butterfly” are two entirely different things. “Butterfly” is not merely “Caterpillar 2.0?; it is “butterfly”, incorporating some elements of, and transcending “caterpillar”, if you like.

With enough pressure of new knowledge, research, evidence and lived experience, our old paradigms reach the limits of usefulness and we are pushed to transcend our ways of thinking and being. So while analytical thinking and systems thinking are entirely different worldviews, there are, of course, elements of analytical thinking that we can see in the systems thinking bubble. In an effort to emphasise the point that systems thinking is not just a jazzier version of analytical thinking, I may have been a little simplistic in saying they are entirely different animals, but that’s the curious thing about mindsets. To my mind, it’s not about choosing which one we prefer, it’s about evolution. We are here to continually extend ourselves and once we “get” how everything in the cosmos is inextricably linked, we cannot unknow that. When we really feel that in every cell of our beings, our worlds irretrievably change. It’s like Neo in “The Matrix”; he realised he was “The One” once he saw what those green squiggles running down the computer screen meant, he couldn’t go on pretending that it was just a bunch of nonsensical squiggles. They were still squiggles; that hadn’t changed…..but their meaning had changed. After his set of beliefs had changed, he had transformed.

So systems thinking, for those who haven’t had their “Neo moment” yet, may look and sound like analytical thinking 2.0 (but it’s not, I tell you!). For those who have had their “Neo moment”, it’s a way of seeing the world that includes and transcends analytical thinking to take us to a more sophisticated kind of thinking, because linear, analytical thinking is not sophisticated enough to help us to deal with the challenges that face us in the 21st century. It’s time to stop looking at the world and our workplaces from an old mindset.

So why does this matter?

My own view is that growing our ability to be systems thinkers is an imperative: for individuals, for businesses and organisations, for humanity. It is a question of whether we will survive and thrive or atrophy and die away. It might be tempting, while we languish in our prison of “analytic thinking”, to remodel the prison in an effort to make it more comfortable, but it will still be a prison. Our world is in crisis and our workplaces are in crisis and we urgently need to think bigger about how we address these crises because our old ways of looking at things have reached their useful limits.

Simply put, looking at something from an analytical viewpoint, we take it apart in order to understand it (the parts are primary, the whole is secondary). However, when we take an interconnected system apart, it loses its fundamental properties. I like a description Russell Ackoff has used: a car’s essential property is to get us from A to B. We won’t be able to understand how it does that by taking it apart. A car is not the sum of its parts; it is the product of the interactions of the parts. Systems thinking, as Peter Senge writes, “is a discipline for seeing wholes….a framework for seeing inter-relationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static ‘snapshots'”. For me, systems thinking is fundamentally about thinking and behaving as if everything in the cosmos is connected to everything else. Applying this to businesses, we can best understand them and surmount our stucknesses if we look at how all the elements interact, not by looking at the individual bits and pieces in isolation. Out of this central belief flow a number of other beliefs and assumptions which make up my worldview about work:

  • There are no one-offs; there are patterns of things. If I don’t see a pattern, it just means I haven’t found it yet.
  • Because everything is connected to everything else, our workplaces are complex systems, not linear machines. This means that cause-and-effect (linear, analytical thinking) is more useful as a backward-looking descriptor of what happened, than as a forward-looking predictor of what might happen.
  • The system is more influential on performance/success/outcomes than individuals.
  • Networks, relationships and devolved power are more effective at achieving a business’s purpose than mechanistic command-and-control hierarchies.
  • Working on “symptoms” or problems is unlikely to address underlying, systemic origins of the problems.

All of these guide how I approach my work. Rather than take out my microscope and zoom in on a “part of a business”, I look at the whole thing and examine it holistically. In a lot of conversations I have with business leaders, I hear about business “problems”. You know the old saying, “We cannot solve problems with the same thinking that we used when we created them.” Well, it’s not just a cool-sounding thing that Einstein is supposed to have said; it’s a fundamental shift in how we look at business issues and how to find solutions for the challenges businesses face. In quite a lot of what I read on the internet, I see old (analytical) thinking being dressed up as something new and improved, but all the new-and-improved-ness won’t make any difference if the old mental model remains the same. For example, I see people offering up the latest tips and tricks on how to “hire better” and failing to see “hiring” as part of a wider system of peoplecapabilitytalentengagement. It all sounds just lovely, but it’s just a re-wording of what’s already been said and it reduces “hiring” as if it can be isolated from the rest of what is going on in the business. Yet, managers still behave like this. Mao’s fiasco with the sparrows is still being replicated in businesses all over the place. It matters because applying an analytical mindset to concerns which are essentially systemic is like dealing with the liver failure of an obese alcoholic by simply transplanting a new liver into his body and not addressing the wider lifestyle concerns that caused the liver to fail in the first place.

How does systems thinking work?

It’s about working with things as integral wholes. It’s about thinking bigger. Water is inherently wet. We cannot understand water’s wetness by breaking it down into its component parts; oxygen and hydrogen. Neither of those elements has an inherent quality of “wetness”. Similarly, with businesses, we cannot get a truly comprehensive understanding of them simply by breaking them down into their component parts. Everything is connected to everything else and we are limited in our abilities to manage them effectively if we isolate “problem parts”. Making a holistic assessment of the system will give us a bigger picture view that highlights strengths, inter-relationships, tensions, the forces at work (both from within and without the system) and areas of hope (where intervention can be applied).

In my experience of applying systems thinking and making interventions in a whole, integrated system, we make work work from an entirely different viewpoint, not by “fixing” individual issues but by exploring symptoms and phenomena of a whole living entity. The issue of engagement, for example, cannot be properly addressed, in my view, by breaking it down into “hiring and recruitment”, “retention”, “remuneration”, “performance management” and looking at these parts individually. Gamification, for instance, is not an antidote to falling engagement to my mind; it’s like putting a band-aid on a lesion in the hope that the cancer will be cured.

Engagement is part of a system which is a synthesis of how a business hires, how it views human motivation, how it shares knowledge, how it encourages cooperation, how it facilitates learning and development…..everything connected to everything else. When taking a systems thinking approach, the interventions are often surprising, seemingly counter-intuitive and not linear or cause-and-effect.

Systems thinking requires us to be more comfortable with interconnectedness, uncertainty, emergence and dynamism. We need to set ourselves free of the expectations of predictability, cause-and-effect and certainty. I read a slightly tongue-in-cheek definition of systems thinking on Twitter which pretty much sums it up: “resources by which it is possible to become less completely clueless about stuff rather than deludedly certain”. Paradoxically, it will allow us to know more about what is going on, but we may be less certain about it.

Acting as if the business is a whole means we will radically revise how the business does business.

The idea that we can tackle business problems by breaking them down permeates all aspects of the workplace. A more humane, integrated and organic worldview is at our disposal. In the arena of peoplecapabilitytalentengagement, for instance, we can see how it influences what we do. We isolate bits and try to fix them. Here is just one example:

How do we hire people? Hire for competencies? Hire because they look nice? Hire because they interviewed well? Hire because they come out great on all those psychofiddle-faddle tests? For a kick off, examining your hiring practices might be a red herring anyway, because it’s only part of a wider system of “people, capability, talent”. Why focus on “hiring” when Deming’s 95% rule says that the system is where we should place our attention. Think bigger about peoplecapabilitytalentengagement: do you need to see CVs?…do you interview (and how do you do this?)….do you carry out an orientation (or is it more like an initiation?)….how do people grow and learn?…..what is your “exit interview” process like?…why do people stay? There might be things that go on when people are hired to make sure they fit into the culture, but if the culture is sick, in some senses it doesn’t matter who you hire. They’ll eventually get shoe-horned into your sick culture whether they are good or bad (and if they don’t fit in, it says more about your system than the “bad” hire!). The system will affect their ability to work well. What I’m saying is that if there is a pattern of people not performing well, why put hiring practices under the microscope? Think bigger and look at the whole.

If you notice that retention is low, this is just a pattern that points to something bigger and more hidden. To my mind, psychometric quizzes are just another “band-aid on cancer”. If we leap to the conclusion that we are making hiring mistakes, we may not have asked the right questions about performance…or learning….or meaningful work….or….. Hire anyone. Hire people you think are wrong. You might even take Bob Marshall‘s advice, which I quite like, and try hiring without relying on a traditional CV as your safety blanket (the #noCV alternative). I tend to go along with Bob when he says that “job interviews suck”. How you hire doesn’t really matter until and unless you discover that the bigger questions you are asking about the whole of the business are the right ones. In a nutshell, is “How do we hire people?” the right question?

We need to get ourselves unstuck from disabling thought patterns that stifle creativity and re-learn more expansive patterns of thinking. Systems thinking is a fundamental change to business orthodoxy. The assumptions we hold about the business of business mostly orient us to measure things that don’t matter and attack problems that are only really indicators of a systemic pattern. We try to find answers for questions that are often irrelevant. Time to think bigger.

…more to come in Part III.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

John Wenger
John Wenger is one of the Directors of Quantum Shift. He has a background in education, counselling and management of commercial and not-for-profit organisations. He brings a passion and understanding of learning and human behaviour to his current work in organisational learning and development. He has a particular interest in uncovering solutions which get people to be less stuck and more creative in their workplaces.


  1. This is great stuff, John. Lest people haven’t thought about it, complex systems (including the idea of thinking systems) have a huge impact on customer service. Companies build layer upon layer of complexity such that their tech and human systems simply don’t work anymore when it comes to meeting the needs of customers.

    It’s one of my fascinations. Some of my mental noodlings about systems and specifically complex systems are at: http://work911.com/wp/?cat=92 and comments welcome

  2. Thanks Robert. I also see the enormous impact that systems thinking and complexity thinking has on customer service. In some cases, we have driven people and businesses away from their customers by dehumanising their work so much that they fail to see that it’s another human being and there is a real relationship there. The overly complex layers you mention are part of this, I believe, and for me, it’s one possible sign that the business has become more fear-oriented than spontaneity-oriented (coming up with the most appropriate response in every living moment).

    Will go and look at your noodlings now.

  3. Hello John

    Am loving these posts on systems thinking. And it occurs to me that the people who can comprehend, get, your speaking is those who already have the ear for systems thinking! Systems thinking is not easy to get for those brought up strictly on a diet of analytical thinking. Oddly enough as consultant it is important for me to take the pieces and make a whole of them yet my profession worships at the alter of analytical thinking.

    All the best

  4. Maz, I feel your pain. One of the things I have heard over the years is “Oh, I know someone who really needs to hear this stuff” and I suspect that sometimes you and I may be speaking to the choir. It’s one of the ongoing challenges of warming people up to seeing things in a way they’ve never seen before. I’m constantly finding new stories, metaphors and analogies that will highlight the need to see things differently. I have found motivational interviewing useful as well and it helps me to remember that there will be some folks who are in the “pre-contemplative” stages of change, for which we are called upon to find creative ways of communicating what we do. Let’s keep on keeping on.


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