Our ability to use systems thinking to see the whole is important. Instead of relying on linear thinking and only seeing small sections of the whole system, we can envision the interrelationships, patterns, structures and mental models.
But why is it that linear thinking tends to guide us towards only a small snapshot of the whole? Why does it become difficult to see the full picture?
In The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge, he states, “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.’ It is a set of general principles – distilled over the course of the twentieth century, spanning fields as diverse as the physical and social sciences, engineering, and management.”
So if systems thinking gets us to see the whole, why doesn’t this just come natural for us? Why do we gravitate to the sections of the system instead of the full system?
I recently moved into a home that has a Home Owners Association (HOA). The idea is that all of the owners in our development all agree to standard practices/rules for doing things to our house. The good thing for those living in a development with an HOA is that they don’t have to worry that someone will do something extreme to their home that will impact the value of the other homes in the development. But the negative is that you can’t just do whatever you want to your own home.
I attended a meeting for the HOA the other day and found something interesting. There were only a handful of homeowners that attended and those that attended had something that they were being told from the HOA that they weren’t allowed to do.
They naturally had frustration and confusion around the role of the HOA. Some said that they were evil people and just trying to punish this one person. Some said they should be focused on overseeing the traffic through the development and giving tickets to people that speed (which the HOA has no authority to do).
Looking at any one of their situations from a linear perspective it makes sense why people fight against their HOA. But the systems view shows us that the HOA system has pros and cons and in order to truly understand the HOA and its value we have to see the full system.
Here is an example that happened to a different HOA recently. They decided that they didn’t want to enforce certain rules because people were complaining. Instead of going through the formal process to change the rules they just stopped enforcing them.
So a homeowner decided to sue the HOA for not doing its job. The HOA then had numerous legal fees to pay and after they settled with the homeowner they had to raise the yearly fee for all homeowners, including the one that sued.
HOAs are an interesting example because they have more direct interrelationships than many systems. It might be hard to see why buying a gas-guzzler instead of a hybrid impacts the environment enough to then impact the individual. But with an HOA it can be easy to see how the HOA isn’t just some evil outside group. Seeing the whole system around the HOA shows the complexity that gets missed if we just see one linear piece of it (getting a fine for doing something against the rules).
Seeing the whole starts to give a new perspective on many aspects of life. We can start to get a better sense of how our actions and behaviors reverberate in the many interrelationships in the system. Then we can start to take steps to accept the system or change the system in very specific ways.