Systems Thinking for an Interconnected World

  • Are you trying to tackle a problem that, despite everyone’s best efforts, does not go away?
  • Are you trying to optimize your part of an organization without considering the impact on the system as a whole because it seems too complicated or too effortful to do otherwise?
  • Are you afraid your short-term efforts might undermine your intention to solve a problem in the long-term?
  • Are a number of groups working on the same issue at the same time with disparate and competing initiatives?
  • Are leaders or stakeholders pushing their favorite solutions and cutting off efforts to dive deeper into understanding why the issue remains stubbornly in place?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, I recommend you investigate the system in which the issue you want is solve is embedded, i.e., systems thinking.

What is a system? The award-winning and pioneering systems thinker Donella Meadows describes a system as an “interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something.”

Every person, animal, organization, forest, garden, and tree we encounter is a complex system made up of other, interconnected systems.  For example, our own bodies are complex systems that contain 11 main systems—circulatory, digestive, endocrine, integumentary/exocrine, lymphatic/immune, muscular, nervous, renal/urinary, reproductive, respiratory, and skeletal—each of which is integrated, interconnected and affects all the others simultaneously.

Our organizations, and the subsystems within them, function the same way. When we try to tackle an issue rooted in the complex structure of a system on its own, it does not get solved because it is kept in place by other elements of the system.

One key to organizational systems thinking is to identify the elements of the system and its subsystems. Elements of a system include things that are physical like buildings, people, and equipment. Systems also include elements that are not physical like an organization’s culture, people’s sense of belonging or commitment to the organization, and their relationships with customers or clients.

The second key to systems thinking is to look at how the elements of the system interconnect, how they relate with one another and hold the system in place. For example, how does culture support or get in the way of an organization adapting to emerging market demands or opportunities?

What are the issues that keep returning or never go away in your organization? Employee turnover? Unexplained drops in sales? A spike in the number of products returned for repairs?

Solving issues that are complex and systemic—most of the important ones are—requires generating collective insight among diverse stakeholders, each of whom has their own singular, albeit incomplete, view of the elements of the system and the interconnections and relationships among the elements. When shared and understood, the multiple singular views create a more nuanced and complete view of the system as a whole, including its interconnections and relationships, i.e., how it is held in place. This collective understanding increases the likelihood that you might be able to solve the seemingly intractable issues that are the focus of your efforts while keeping the other elements of the system in your view frame.

The May 8 blog will highlight the challenges and keys to creating collective insight through systems thinking.

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