People have been using systems thinking for decades. While Lao Tzu certainly had no understanding of any formal systems thinking 2,500 years ago when he wrote the Tao Te Ching, his work exemplifies many systems thinking principles.
Today you can easily find a book that explains systems thinking in a very technical manner. You can study about feedback loops and mental models all day to get more clarity around elements that exist within a system.
In Systems Thinking – A Guide to Managing In a Changing Environment, author Robert Wright says, “In a certain sense, systems thinking is as old as recorded history; in another sense, it is a very young science. Pre-Socratic scholars of the sixth century B.C. learned to find and consider an order, or kosmos, that was cohesive, intelligible, and controllable by thought and action. Many of the great discoveries were made possible because adventuresome intellects broke with the then popular, but static ‘gear-theory’ of their times, when cause-effect analysis grudgingly provided enlightenment step by step. Systems thinking underlies massive intellectual contributions such as Copernicus’ explanation of astronomy, Newton’s laws of motion, Darwin’s thesis on natural selection, Harvey’s theory of blood motion, and Freud’s contribution to psychiatry. Each man contemplated his field of study in a systems way before guidelines for general systems theory were formed.”
Therefore, if you want to use systems thinking to improve, you don’t actually need to study systems thinking to do so. You simply have to pull enough insight from it to then apply the systems thinking principles to an area you wish to improve.
Plus, systems thinking isn’t just for one specific field of study or area of improvement. It permeates throughout all improvement strategies and business models in a way that simply can provide more insight into what is actually happening.
Instead of getting caught up in linear thinking (cause-effect, beginning and end, before and after, etc.) we can start to see the many variables that all interrelate and interact to form a much more complex structure than the one we see without systems thinking.
We don’t see the government pass a new law and complain because it impacts us in a specific way, we can evaluate the law and see the many ways people are impacted, some positively and some negatively.
We don’t see a problem at work and try to find a person to blame. We want to understand the many variables involved to change something so that the same problem doesn’t come up again in the future.
We don’t attack a new fitness goal with sheer effort and an unrealistic expectation that willpower and motivation will be there to help us overcome all of the other variables involved, like our habits and ways we think about elements related to fitness. Instead, we address those other aspects that are actually much more powerful than our fleeting motivation or willpower.
The first step of systems thinking isn’t to fully understand reinforcing feedback loops; it is to start to admit that what we see is actually a small subsection of many systems. We have to admit that there are things we just don’t know. We don’t know all of the elements and how everything is interrelated. Even the brightest systems thinkers must be humble enough to see the complexity in systems thinking. They may see much more in a system than others, but nobody sees and understands it all.
So don’t get so caught up in trying to understand systems thinking that you don’t actually improve anything. Most of the greatest accomplishments in human history are not due to a formal systems thinking education.
Instead, find an area that you want to improve and rely on the systems thinking principles (many of which I explain throughout the website). Learn some and apply what you learned. Change over and over and feel your way through until you start to see some success.
Going through failure to success is the greatest teacher. You will learn more from those experiences than you can ever learn in a classroom, in a book, or on a website.
Systems thinking is a great way to start to think differently about problems and ways to improve. But without working through failure and changing until you start to see some success you will become stuck with an intellectual understanding but lack the important practical element that is actually much more important.