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Linear Thinking Versus Systems Thinking

Linear Thinking versus Systems Thinking

Most people have been taught over the course of their lifetime to see things linearly.  We are taught that there is a cause and then an effect, a beginning and then an end, a problem and then a solution, a birth and then a death, a rise and a fall, an action and then a reaction.  The reality is that we often simplify things so that they fit into this model of thinking.

The problem with this way of thinking is that it eliminates important aspects of the situation.  It ignores the complex system and instead focuses on one aspect of a larger system.  Reality says that there is much more at any given time than a simple start and finish or cause and effect.  

Most people watch the weather forecast which says that it should start raining around two and stop raining around six.  But if we look at the full system, we see that there are many other factors.  We are trying to look at a complex system and extract the information that we need.

The reality is that after it rains, the water gets absorbed into the soil, evaporated into the atmosphere and taken from the high ground to the low ground from rivers and streams.  Whether it rains or not is dependent on many other factors, such as the current winds, the temperature and the amount of moisture it absorbs from now until them.  In order for us to pull out the information that we want, we look solely at one aspect of a large, complex system.

Looking at past changes in Health Care Reform we can find this same linear thinking.  The Affordable Care Act went into effect and has drastically changed the health care system.  To me this is an example of finding a problem and making a change, without completely understanding the complex systems involved.  

Seeing that health care costs were rising and some individuals were having extreme financial distress due to their health care costs, President Obama decided to make a change to improve those situations and solve those problems.  

But, as we are finding out, the health care system is a very complex system and there are many other factors that are now being impacted.  It is not as simple as seeing a problem and a solution.  We aren't just implementing a solution, we are completely changing the system.  But, because the original designers of the new system were focused on only a problem and a solution, many other problems have come up.  

With the evolution of health care, critics are finding it easy to criticize parts but find it difficult to really propose systematic improvements.  They may say to keep parts that people like and remove parts that people don't like but again they are missing that the overall system needs both in order to work as designed.  Getting rid of the individual mandate would mean there would be less people buying insurance, which would mean only the unhealthy would really find it worth it to buy the ever-increasing premiums.  This would cause premiums to rise as insurance companies see the population of insured getting more and more unhealthy.  It would become a downward spiral as premiums rise and makes it less valuable for healthy people to take part in the system.  But the attempt was simply to get rid of a part that many people dislike.  

It doesn’t take an expert in systems thinking to see that there will be some huge problems created by drastically changing the complex system.  But, it would have been beneficial if, instead of creating the new law based on politicians arguing over what is ideal for specific individuals, we used system thinking to develop the new law.  Then we might have understood that the Affordable Care Act is actually making costs go up for many people, and that the president didn't have the ability to guarantee insurance companies won’t change their plans.  

Because of the nature of a complex system, there are good things and bad things about this new law and each side can easily point to pros in their argument and cons in their opponent's argument.  

When we use systems to reach our goals, we should also be aware of this type of thinking.  If we want to save money but don’t pay for groceries today, then tomorrow we will probably need to eat out, which generally costs more.

If we want to lose weight and decide to exercise every night for 4 hours, we will have to understand how this affects the rest of our lives and families, otherwise we won’t continue.  Or, if we want to start exercising and eating less we may realize that exercise is making us more hungry which makes it more difficult to accomplish the other goal.

I highly recommend evaluating your goals based on systems thinking.  There are many books such as “Thinking in Systems” by Donella Meadows that explain this way of thinking and how beneficial it can be.  


The other great thing about systems thinking is that you may see many of your goals being impacted by a positive trend in one area of your life.  I can recall when I was quitting smoking.  I was also trying to get healthier by working out and eating right.  Coincidentally I was taking vocal lessons at the time to learn how to sing.  What I found is that quitting smoking, exercising and eating right had a profound affect on my singing ability.  Suddenly I was seeing significant change in all areas because they were each impacting the other systems in positive way.  I saw exponential growth because I was addressing many aspects of each goal’s system rather than just adjusting one aspect at a time.

Regardless of the goals you have or the situation you are in, start to evaluate the complex systems around each goal.  You may discover that change is easy once you address the various factors around the goal.  Only then can you get a glimpse of the complex system underlying your goals.  


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