When a machine breaks down, it’s apparent that a flaw in the mechanics – a flaw within its system – has occurred. When that flaw has been identified and corrected, the machine can fulfill its function once again.
However, with complex living systems (such as families, workplaces or the natural environment), both problems and solutions are not as straightforward. Because these systems are dynamic (i.e., they have no baseline to restore) and are often overlapping and interconnected with other systems, implementing simple solutions can easily go wrong.
Without acknowledging complexities, and how changes can affect other systems (or others in the system), a waterfall of unintended consequences can occur, making a “solution” just as harmful – sometimes even worse than – the initial problem.
It’s a Systems Thinking mindset that helps problem-solvers approach, consider and predict the outcomes of ideas and it’s an incredibly valuable concept when interacting with any system.
Systems Thinking is a proactive mindset exploring the factors, relationships and interactions contributing to potential outcomes. It operates on the principle that when investigating any idea, one should always ask, “How do we deal with complexity without creating further unintended consequences?”
In short, Systems Thinking encourages us to consider the bigger picture – always good practice before trying to “fix” any problem. This big-picture view extends beyond a “problem” we see to include the people interacting with the system.
So, despite the name, Systems Thinking is equally about how everyone’s actions interact with the people, systems, problems and solutions existing in their world.
Because of its expansive applications, Systems Thinking doesn’t only apply to problem-solving.
Systems are all around us and have been around us since the dawn of time. Not only do we build systems at a societal level, but at a personal level, and it’s these systems that have allowed us to survive and thrive in our world.
Each day, we work and live in systems, often without truly considering them. This, unfortunately, can result in unforeseen consequences, pain and conflict because we lack consideration, insight – even empathy for others also operating in “our” systems.
By daily employing Systems Thinking, from navigating relationships to taking steps to protect our natural environment (Ison, 2017), we can intercept unpleasant, unforeseen consequences. This helps us live and work together more harmoniously.
Because Systems Thinking is a branch of critical thinking, it promotes a more open-minded viewpoint. This allows us to more easily empathize with others and graciously learn from our own mistakes. It’s this constant consideration that helps us to focus on relevant, meaningful change.
So, when we approach any issue or new idea with a Systems Thinking mindset, far-reaching benefits surface.
Systems Thinking acts as a mirror for its practitioners, revealing potential baggage we may bring to a situation, be it prejudices, assumptions – even rose-coloured glasses. This perspective allows us to cast off these barriers and objectively consider the task at hand.
When we think about our own thinking and examine our own mental models and frameworks within which we work, we recognize first, that we ourselves are a system. This consideration helps us constantly evaluate “what we’re doing when we do what we do”.
Instead of looking for a scapegoat when a problem arises, Systems Thinking asks, “What can we learn from this?” and “Where can we go from here?” Not only does this allow room for grace (and even forgiveness), but it paves the way for continuous, lifelong learning, which is the basis for innovation.
We are all influencing the systems around us, all the time, and when we choose to practice Systems Thinking, something beautiful happens.
We meet people where they are at, without judgement, without hate – without weapons (Barks,1995).
This deliberate act of peace nurtures trust, love and relationship – and innovation grows naturally from this fertile ground. It’s when we gently seek to understand, and carefully strive to solve problems with the fewest unintended consequences that true impact can be made.
Certainly, we’re not going to get everything right every time. But we can learn and strive to be better, do better, through a Systems Thinking mindset.
For more on Systems Thinking, listen to the college’s Learning Innovation podcast: Striving for Reflective and Reflexive Learning Through Systems Thinking
Barks, C. (1995). The essential Rumi. Castle Books.
Ison, R. L. (2017). Systems practice: How to act: In situations of uncertainty and complexity in a climate-change world (2nd ed.). Springer London
Michelle Ni Dochartaigh-Derbich
EDI Strategist/Lead Researcher
Lethbridge College Provost & Vice President Academic