Systems thinkers always seemed to understand more of the world than I did. That’s what sparked my interest towards systems thinking. I too wanted to understand the world like they did.

I had (and still have) a hard time wrapping my brain around systems thinking. At the surface it’s completely obvious. Of course everything is a system. The company I work in is a system. The city I live in is a system. And of course we should look at the big picture. Yet there seemed to be so much more to it than that so I kept on delving deeper.

The first thing that stuck in my head was this quote I read from a source I no longer remember.

The sum of local optimums is not the global optimum.

Even if you take the best parts from all the cars in the world you won’t have the best car. You won’t even have a car, because the parts won’t fit. The local optimums (such as the best motor, best tires) do not amount to the global optimum (the best car).

In the best car some of the parts are suboptimal when examined in isolation. However, within the correct context (the car) they perform their specific function perfectly. They enable the global optimum.

This to me underlined why systems thinking is so important. If you want to improve performance you must look at the system, not the components.

“Until managers take into account the systemic nature of their organizations most of their efforts to improve their performance are doomed to failure.”

-Russell L. Ackoff

I still had trouble with the definition of a system. A city is a system, but optimizing a city is just a local optimum when looking at the whole country. And a country is a local optimum to the rest of the Earth. You can always scale up until you reach the ultimate system, the universe.

I learned that this is simply a matter of setting the boundaries and accepting that always optimizing for the universe can be overwhelming. However, despite not being able to optimize to the ultimate level, optimizing a company is far better than optimizing a department.

My next epiphany was related to linear cause and effect. When I started looking at systems instead of components I realized how cause and effect are actually cyclical, not linear. In a system the components are deeply interconnected so when a cause creates an effect the effect also becomes a new cause.

In systems thinking cause and effect are cyclical, not linear.

When a country buys more guns the neighboring country perceives it as hostile activity. The neighbor starts running military drills near the border. This is perceived as hostile activity by the first country so they start buying even more guns. A reinforcing loop is born.

Whose fault is it? To find out you can try playing the kids’ game of asking “Why?” for everything. When the ultimate system is the universe, the ultimate cause is the Big Bang. Other than that assigning blame doesn’t really make sense when you look at things systemically.

In systems thinking there is no blame.

The organizations we work in are also systems. Most of the organizational dysfunctions we face are due to the system. The successes are also thanks to the system.

These systems are designed by people. In traditional hierarchical organizations only the top management can change the system. In modern organizations everyone is a system architect.

We can change the system. And we must use our power to do good, since the system is always stronger than the individual.

“A bad system will defeat a good person every time.”

- W. Edwards Deming

Systems thinking can be a vague and abstract concept, but I hope that this and my following blog posts will make it more concrete. To summarize, here’s my current understanding of systems thinking.

Systems thinking is about

  • looking at the whole instead of focusing on components
  • understanding components within their context, not in isolation
  • paying attention to the interactions between components
  • seeing cycles instead of linear cause and effect

Want to learn more? Check out a YouTube video of Ackoff talking about “Beyond Continuous Improvement”. It’s pure wisdom condensed into 12 minutes.