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Dealing with the world like a systems thinker: How to begin

A brief, broad foray into the enigmatic field of systems thinking can help move beyond the management speak towards more open mindsets and more effective strategies for shaping our complex universe.

If your job or volunteering involves addressing society’s predicaments at global, national or local level, you are probably comfortable with pervasive convolution, interconnection and uncertainty. For example, you might be trying to transform a country’s energy system in a way that hits a number of diverse, national and international environmental targets, while matching the public’s changing preferences. Or you may be designing a school curriculum to prepare kids for technologies and professions that don’t exist yet. The complexity we face is defining of this time in human history. It was like this before Covid-19 showed up, of course. It’s just more obvious now – the pandemic has left us brutally enlightened on the reality of a globalised world.

As the scientist Bob May said in his lecture on the banking system and ecological food webs, ‘complicated things usually have more ways of going wrong than helping to make everything steady’. With the added effects of the coronavirus, the theatre of problem-solving is just so mind-boggling. Whether it be social, financial or technological, the main question upon which your assignment is built, touched by distant dramas, is following a twisting plot. You’re navigating increasingly elaborate networks of characters, roles and relationships just to get basic stuff done. Like an ecosystem, each new person or connection spun into your project’s webby tale overturns the entire dynamic, throwing fresh curve-balls for your perpetual performance of whack-a-mole. In this mad 21st century Shakespearean problem play, getting to the end of Act 1 – taking a critical decision – is nothing short of divine.

Bob and the Bard can teach us a thing or two about complex human problems: that they exist in mutable systems and require more than simple, isolated, solutions. The usual problem-solving tools are constraining. Systematic or reductionist strategies alone don’t address dynamism or interconnectivity. Take the practice of breaking problems down into neat packages that are then delegated to separate teams. This doesn’t account for the packages being interacting parts of a system. For instance, in a city, bicycle use is related to a wide range of things like neighbourhood crime or air pollution. If we ask the bicycle team to increase the number of people cycling, then it’s no good if they operate in a silo. We will need to intentionally create a strategy from the beginning that supports the bicycle people to work effectively and iteratively across team borders with the crime and air people.

With the current situation in mind, perhaps you’ve written the phrase ‘systems thinking’ on your lockdown self-improvement plan. It’s been cropping up in articles about leadership recently and people have been dropping it into discussion in meetings. Everyone loves a corporate buzzword. ‘Systems leadership’, a variation, is particularly buzzy. Systems thinking is suited to policy-making, apparently, and you’ve heard it described as ‘critical for 21st century life’. An enticing vignette for the aspiring and discerning global change-leader.

However, you’re sceptical of hackneyed workplace jargon. Systems thinking sounds like a fancy way of saying ‘muddling through when things are really messy’, which you’re doing already. What exactly is it? If it’s a distinct skill, and much more than a buzzword, then how can you find the time and money to learn enough to do it well? Can’t specialists do it for us?

To find out what it’s all about, I did a free, introductory, 8-week course at the Open University on the practice of systems thinking. Inspired by the natural sciences, and also known as ‘environmental thinking’, systems thinking is an academic field in its own right and a holistic approach to problems-management. Although there are technical disciplines within the field, it is fundamentally a philosophical approach and way of thinking and being. This means that, rather than teaching flashy, practical techniques to take back to the office, a beginners course will take you back to the start and stroll you through some fundamental strategies to encourage a shift in mindset. This requires openness, self-reflection and a ‘life-long learner’ attitude. It’s not something that happens overnight, but over time.

There are many ideas for managing or seeing situations with a systems thinking approach. Here are five ideas or principles that I’ve taken from my initial learning which might be useful lenses through which to look when managing complex projects:

Accept your knowledge is incomplete

There are always phenomena, relationships, and drivers we can’t be aware of or comprehend all the time. Our views and understanding are shaped and limited not just by the information we receive but by our own inhibiting belief systems. The problem is not that we don’t know this, but that we rarely admit it. If we can think about our knowledge gaps, and be open about these before we interact with or influence our situation of interest, we might make more effective choices. It’s better to shed light on our ignorance than hide it.

Include humans in the solution

Solving social problems, like policy-making, requires holistic thinking. No matter how technical or scientific your issue is, society’s conundrums all involve people and when people are involved the problem is also social, political and cultural. Science alone cannot solve a technical problem – we have to heed the lessons from history, politics and the arts. Likewise, few problems that in the first instance appear unrelated to technology or science, like human rights or welfare, can be addressed only with the humanities. For these conundrums we need economic, technological and scientific understanding too. If we occupy a trans-disciplinary space then we can more effectively predict, make sense of and deal with new obstacles. That’s why creating cognitive diversity within teams is so useful.

Try out non-linear, non-systematic approaches

Systematic, linear approaches to problematic situations are familiar. Examples are planning a project step-by-step, or breaking a problem down into separate components, looking at them in isolation, and then putting them together again at the end. Written communication is often done linearly, too, following structures or rules designed to make text digestible, such as compressing information down into three messages. These are essentially reductionist approaches. While they have benefits, like making workloads and communication manageable and clear, they risk over-simplification and lack any accounting for ambiguity, changeability and interrelation between variables. This risks the emergence of siloed, inward thinking, and perverse, unplanned outcomes.

Systemic strategies, on the other hand, can complement systematic approaches and improve resilience of our decisions or proposals. In communication or decision-making, this includes using more unconventional approaches like drawing maps and diagrams to aid thinking and comprehension. In the management of projects, systemic approaches could include regular re-mapping of questions, issues and teams throughout the course of a project. Systemic approaches help us manage complexity, unknowns, and changes in other parts of the system.

Spend time in the environment

The situation we are interested in cannot be completely extracted from its environment – this is all the context, people, systems and forces that affect it. Fisheries management, which is the subject I work on, is a good example of this; to newcomers it might seem remote, but it interlaces with a range of other dynamic systems such as marine biodiversity, climate change, the economy and national identity. Keep in mind a changing world context and environment at all times by experiencing it in person, spending time around the edges and exploring outside immediate surroundings. This can be done physically or with visualisation, mapping (perhaps using something like PESTLE), and reading widely about a range of subjects. These kinds of activities might reveal overlooked paths to success.

You can’t necessarily solve problems but you can build space to inquire within them

Society’s problems are never clear and it’s debatable whether unclear problems can really be solved. But there are actions we can take to shape the situation and continuously improve or change it over time. To do this well we need to be always in a sensitive, flexible, learning mode. Systems practitioners are described as ‘action researchers’. This means that learning through doing, observation and exploration is made part of the problem-management. It’s important that space for this is built in from the beginning. Novel ideas for adjustments or adaptations are then generated; we reflect once more, and adjust again. A life-long learning approach means not assuming that there is nothing left to learn or change about our work.

Systems thinking and practising systemically is not just for analysts, but for everyone. It’s about developing a way of being – in or outside of work – that is flexible and self-aware. Importance is placed on recognising oneself as part of the context, recognising a range of perspectives, and acknowledging unknowns. Independent, original thinking is fostered, rather than rigidly adhering to prescribed formulae. Once the right mindset is established, developing systems thinking-based approaches can start. These can then be adapted for interacting with the world in ways that suit us, as the practitioners, and the situation at hand.

While systems thinking is often mentioned, particularly in corporate contexts, as if it has a specific meaning that is obvious, the field itself seems to me to be both esoteric and very broad. It can mean lots of things. While the existence of expensive business programmes implies that it’s about leadership, or that anyone can be a systems practitioner after five days’ training, I feel that neither are true. I suspect that systems thinking should be regarded in the same way as science – we wouldn’t claim to be a scientist after just a week of study.

Nevertheless, just as it’s possible for the time-constrained learner to at least dabble enough in science to think more scientifically, it’s possible to grow a systems thinking mindset by reading around and experimenting with some of its key ideas.

The five ideas I outlined are by no means exhaustive, and they are not groundbreaking, but from my own experience of policy and problems analysis, they are useful prompts to check in with ourselves: Is our perspective open enough? Are we being self-limiting? Even if we’re already applying these well in our working practices, being familiar with a bit of systems thinking theory can help us explain to ourselves and others why we’ve made a particular choice. This way, we can build empowerment to challenge and debate what works and foster mutual support as we shape the world along these bumpy, perplexing, paths ahead.

If you are applying systems thinking actively and consciously in your work, and would like to share some learning, thoughts or reflections, I would love to hear from you. Although I do take inspiration from systems thinking to develop the way I work, I consider myself to be a systems thinking novice, so would particularly welcome corrections or criticism if you spot anywhere where I have made an error or misinterpreted what systems thinking is about. Please leave a comment here or send me a message through direct mail.

If you want to start learning about systems thinking, the choice of resources isn’t overwhelming: there are books such as Meadows’ ‘Thinking in Systems’, a few UK-based masters courses at Open University and UCL, and expensive business programmes. The Open University offers several free, short options on its OpenLearn platform, as well as the module-based, paid postgraduate certificate, postgraduate diploma, or MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice (the latter is a minimum of three years, costing £7,990–£11,900).