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When to use systems thinking and when to use 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.  

When to use systems thinking and when to use linear thinking

Scott Miker

When you start to study systems thinking you start to realize the incredible value of thinking about the whole system when addressing problems. Most of the world goes through life following the more simplistic linear thinking. Since this is used over and over again, it must have some value.

Whenever you want to fix a problem, or improve some aspect of life, you have numerous ways to approach the problem. While I am a huge proponent of the value of systems thinking, sometimes it simply is unnecessary.

Life is complex. There are always going to be multiple factors that play a role in any outcome. These factors can confuse things and make it more difficult to understand what is actually happening.

Systems thinking looks at the interconnectedness of these factors. We want to see how section A is influenced by and influences section B, C and D. We want to know what aspects of section A cause the most impact on those other sections.

When it comes to linear thinking we are solely focused on 2 factors. We want to see how two of these variables relate to each other.

If you study systems thinking you can certainly find example after example of when systems thinking is the best way to proceed. Its advantages are numerous.

But what about linear thinking? Are there times when linear thinking should be used to solve a problem?

The answer is yes. Yes there are times when we should avoid the systems thinking mindset and look for a quick fix.

In Systems Thinking for Social Change by David Peter Stroh, he says, “Conventional or linear thinking works for simple problems, such as when I cut my hand and put on a Band-Aid to help the cut heal. It is also the basis for how most of us were taught in school and still tend to think – divide the world into specific disciplines and problems into their components under the assumption that we can best address the whole by focusing on and optimizing the parts.”

So if you find yourself with a cut, the best approach isn’t to understand why your hand slips and hit the blade of the knife while cutting watermelon. The best approach is to quickly find a solution to the problem.

If you are in a boat that starts to take on water, you need to address the fact that the boat is going to sink if nothing is done. Then you want to determine if you should hurry to shore, plug the hole or get the lifeboat ready.

But if you are working to build a boat, you need to think about the whole boat. Starting to build without thinking about how all of the pieces come together to form a functioning vessel and you will run into problems.

When it comes to complex problems in life that is where systems thinking really shines. If you are running a business and need to find a way to make more money, you can’t just think linearly.

If you do and decide that this obviously means you just need to hire more sales people you may find that your operations can’t handle the extra workload. Or you may find that you have to hire 10 sales people before finding one that could actually increase sales enough to justify the expense of hiring and training them. In other words increasing profit in a business is more than simply adding sales people. It is how all of these other factors interconnect that is important. Otherwise you might just be moving a bottleneck to another area, only to realize that output isn’t much more than it was prior to the change.

If you are trying to lose weight it might seem like linear thinking is best. “Simple,” you think, “just eat better.”

But as anyone who has tried to lose weight can attest, it isn’t that simple. As you start out you start to realize that it is difficult to eat healthier when traveling, or that after a long, hard day at work the last thing you want to do is reach for a stalk of broccoli for dinner.

The systems and habits approach to improvement follows the systems thinking mindset. It allows you to see the full system and learn about leverage points in the system where change has a better chance of sustaining.

But if you cut your finger just grab a bandage. If your boat starts to take on water determine the best way to survive the situation and move. It doesn’t take a systems thinking mindset in these scenarios so stick with the simple solutions.