Peter Senge, author The Fifth Discipline, describes system thinking throughout this book and several other books that he has written. He brings an understanding of thinking systematically (versus linearly) and explains how we can start to see the full system instead just a quick picture of one part of the system.
He says, “Systems thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static ‘snapshots.’”
But this seems to be opposite of the way most of us think. We tend to look for linear relationships of sections of the system rather than the full system. But there is much more value in being able to understand the system and the various interconnected aspects that impact that system.
I read an article the other day that talked about the best habits to acquire in order to be successful. After reading the article I thought the author presented some great, positive habits that can help someone improve. But they didn’t give any insight into how to actually develop those habits.
For me, this is where systems thinking and linear thinking differ. Linear thinking sees positive habits and identifies why they are valuable. But if you want to further develop those habits in yourself, the linear thinker has a difficult time connecting the “how” part.
But systems thinking aligns with habits. Changing habits can be thought of as leverage to the system thinker because small changes can be done over and over again until they have a big impact, thus leveraging a very small, easy behavior change for a big future impact.
The systems thinker better understands the various scenarios where that habit is likely to come up. If the habit is to be more open-minded to new information and not be so quick to pass judgment, the systems thinker can start to see various scenarios where this thought process is invoked. Since habits are automatic, they can then look for ways to interfere with their current habit and inject something new.
By doing this we start to better understand the full system in place. This helps us shift from primarily linear thinking to incorporating systems thinking. The more we do it the more we start to see patterns and interconnected elements that have a great impact.
So if you are interested in trying to gain more of a systematic perspective, take a specific habit that you want to improve. Then look at the various factors that impact or are impacted by this habit. Find key ways to interject whenever you start to rely on the existing habit. Next, work to slowly make changes. The key is not to expect instant change but to understand the value in this approach is that you take a long time and have small changes. Then over time those changes become more and more powerful.
Systems thinking is a great way to gain a more thorough perspective on situations. It helps to shine a light on the patterns and interconnectedness that we often disregard in our attempt to make it simpler. But simplicity can exist in systems thinking because we start to view the whole rather than just some random parts of the system.