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Use Systems Thinking to Solve Problems instead of Linear Thinking

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Use Systems Thinking to Solve Problems instead of Linear Thinking

Scott Miker

There is a great quote by renowned systems thinker and author Peter Senge that says, “Business and human endeavors are systems…we tend to focus on snapshots of isolated parts of the system.  And wonder why our deepest problems never get solved.”

One of the things that I realized when I discovered systems thinking books and resources was that being able to think systematically helps break away from some of the inherent problems with thinking linearly.  In addition, I realized how much systems thinking spills over into almost every aspect of our existence - from our health, the weather, cultural issues, politics, illness, etc. 

Thinking linearly in its basic form is seeing things in black and white.  It ties actions to reactions; start to finish, beginning to end, cause to effect etc.  It devalues all of the complexities, intricacies and connections. 

But these aspects that gets overlooked and devalued with linear thinking are incredibly important.  By looking at the full scope of something we can see that there is a lot of gray in between the black and white. 

This is systems thinking.  It attempts to look at the full picture instead of just looking at a small section of it.  By taking a more comprehensive look, we can find leverage points that hold great value and meaning and then use the leverage points to solve problems. 

To me, that is what Senge was getting at with his quote.  We can’t just see a snapshot and really know how to solve a problem.  When we do that we tend to create other problems.

But our society is filled with examples of this.  One is how we utilize pharmaceuticals. 

Pharmacy companies work to create a pill that solves a problem.  Their main motivation is to create a profit for their company by developing a new medicine. 

People receiving the medication don’t always realize the full extent of what that pill does and the side effects it could cause.  Sometimes doctors prescribe additional drugs just to counter the side effects of the drugs that they prescribed. 

When we start to see all of complexities we see a different picture.  We see where the system works well and where it doesn’t.  We see different motivators for different people within the system.  One specific aspect we see that these additional drugs necessary to counter the side effects actually works as a reinforcing feedback look for the pharmacy companies looking to sell more product and increase their revenue. 

But thinking linearly shortcuts the process of understanding.  It leaves us with a “clear” path forward, even if that path isn’t the best one.

Breaking away from this takes time.  I think there is an inherent flaw in the way humans think and it isn’t easy to change.  But it can be incredibly valuable to change.  It starts to show us the complexities that get missed and shows us where the real leverage points are, instead of showing us a quick, easy fix. 

So how can you start to shift from thinking linearly to thinking systematically?  Let’s go through a quick example.

Let’s take a system and analyze it.  Let’s look at poverty and education. 

First we might say that these two are related.  We may do research and discover that there is a correlation between poverty and education. 

Then we want to start to identify more than just the fact that they are related.  What other factors play a role in one or both of these?  We can find that there are elements such as belief systems of individuals, cultural beliefs between various groups, ability to fund education, parents’ education level, parents’ encouragement and respect for education, ability to fund additional costs from education (books, tutors, time spent studying instead of working etc.).  This process can be quite long and starts to really build a lot of direct and indirect factors associated with either poverty or education.  (If you really start to dive into systems thinking you will start to see reinforcing feedback loops and other complex components, but to start it is helpful to just see some of the main aspects of the system)

Then we can start to put the various factors together.  We start to see a much different picture than we did from just looking at how they are related.

If we stopped at how they are related and immediately tried to find a solution we would likely gravitate towards free education or providing those without enough money for education some sort of scholarship. 

But once we start to evaluate all of the other factors we realize that those by themselves would probably not have much of an impact.  All of the other factors in the system would come into play.  In fact, when we start to really evaluate systems we see different parts of the system responding. Senge calls this compensating feedback.  What often happens is that these other factors compensate to try and bring the system back to its current state of equilibrium and balance.

This also gives us insight into how we can improve the system.  Changing the system is usually very difficult but can be done.  It may be to identify areas of leverage, such as parents’ encouragement of education or cultural belief systems around education.  Find factors that can have an impact.  These tend to be the hard, time-consuming things that people shy away from but over time can be incredibly helpful in changing the system. 

Solving problems through linear thinking is commonplace but has major faults.  Instead of trying to solve problems using linear thinking, try to better understand the full system and then look at leverage points that can be used to slowly improve the system.