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Stop thinking about problems in isolation and see the full system

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.  

Stop thinking about problems in isolation and see the full system

Scott Miker

When problems arise, we all want to better understand the problem.  We likely think about it and come up with a solution to the problem.

If we start to feel ill, we run to the store for some cold medicine.  If we don’t have enough money to buy the car we want we finance it through credit.  If we get diagnosed with high cholesterol or high blood pressure we get prescribed something to lower it for us. 

These all seem like perfectly good solutions to the problem.  But the problem, as we see it, is only the symptoms we experience.  We experience the discomfort and associate the problem to that discomfort.  Sometimes we dig a little deeper to the root cause but even when we do that we likely just associate it to one cause.

Problems are not isolated in the way we tend to imagine.  They are actually all interconnected with many variables that all have a slight impact on the whole system.  The symptoms we experience are likely just elements of the system.

In The Systems View of Life, A Unifying Vision by Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi, the authors say, “As the twenty-first century unfolds, it is becoming more and more evident that the major problems of our time – energy, the environment, climate change, food security, financial security – cannot be understood in isolation.  They are systemic problems, which means that they are all interconnected and interdependent.  Ultimately, these problems must be seen as just different facets of one single crisis, which is largely a crisis of perception.  It derives from the fact that most people in our modern society and especially our large social institutions, subscribe to the concepts of an outdated worldview, a perception of reality inadequate for dealing with our overpopulated, globally interconnected world.”   

The reality is that the problems we face from a personal standpoint are just as complex and interconnected as businesses or politicians face.  Just as businesses need to think about the whole system, we should also shift to seeing the systems around us.  Then, the “cause” of our problems changes to become the whole system structure. 

While this may seem overwhelming at first, it doesn’t have to be.  We can still find easy steps to take to improve and get better.  But that also requires a change in our approach to solving problems.  Instead of instantly trying to reduce the discomfort of the symptom, we leave the symptom and use it to try to help us understand when the system is changing enough to fix the problem. 

Capra and Luisi go on to say, “There are solutions to the major problems of our time; some of them even simple.  But they require a radical shift in our perceptions, our thinking, and our values.  And, indeed, we are now at the beginning of such a fundamental change of worldview in science and society, a change of paradigms as radical as the Copernican revolution.”

This change is happening.  The more I dive into systems thinking the more evidence I see of people shifting to this holistic view of problems instead of the linear view. 

But for some reason, most of it is from the business world.  Politicians seem too heavily focused on the next election and trying to maintain a perception in the minds of voters.  Personally we still crave the quick fix and reduction of the symptom instead of doing the work to better understand the systems. 

But that doesn’t have to be the case for you.  You can start to see problems in a systematic way.  You can start to change the systems in your life, be it habits, routines, structures, relationships, etc.   

The first step should be to stop and try to see the larger systems present.

If we feel ill, we can start by looking for patterns, changes, larger elements etc.  Do we always seem to get ill around the same time of year?  Is there a new stress that has emerged in our life?  Is this just a simple part of life and the best way to defeat it is to rest and drink lots of fluids?  If our body is designed to beat these minor colds by flushing the germs from our body, are we inhibiting that process because we don’t want all of that phlegm or that runny nose?  Are those “problems” just our body curing itself and we are taking medicine to slow that process down?   Are we eating enough healthy foods to stay healthy?  

If we don’t have enough money to buy the car we want, is that because we aren’t budgeting our income properly?  Or are we not making enough to be able to afford the car?  Is taking a loan for the car putting us further behind in our finances and going to hurt us down the road when we need to come up with a down payment for a new home?  Is this stretching us too much and creating new risk because an unexpected expense could come along and cripple us? 

If we get diagnosed with high blood pressure or high cholesterol is that due to our eating habits, genes or lack of physical activity?  Are we not exercising regularly?  Are we eating too many sugars and not enough fiber?  Are there side effects from the medication that will create other problems later? 

In any of these examples the best way to proceed might be the same.  However, the systems view shows us a different picture of the situation.  And that may tip us off to a leverage point in the system that might help us to find a solution with a minimal amount of side effects or future problems as possible. 

At a minimum it will allow us to move forward, conscious of the additional side effects or risks and what the full picture of this next step means.  This will help us from being blind sighted later if a consequence comes from a decision we make today. 

By changing our perspective, just as Capra and Luisi talk about changing our worldview, we can start to change how we proceed.  We can start to see future problems and the fact that we are creating those today with our decisions.  Then we can slowly start to change our decisions to help us build a better future for ourselves and for the world around us.