Systemic Thinking

Understanding why systems work the way they do is particularly important in today’s businesses, which have evolved into multi-minded, and multipurpose systems.

Through this course, participants will be trained in the basic principles, concepts, and tools of           Systemic Thinking in order to understand and work effectively with and within complex social systems.

I. About the course (copy)

Terminal Objective

Given a challenging scenario, participants will be able to explain the appropriate archetype for the case, following the systemic thinking approach.

Enabling Objectives

To enable this, the learners will be able to:

  • Recognize structures of systemic thinking (principles, concepts and elements)
  • Identify systemic thinking tools that addresses identified problems/ situations
  • Explain the archetype that will be suitable in a given scenario utilizing the systemic thinking methodology and tools

II. Systemic Thinking Principles and Concepts (copy)

About Systemic Thinking

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Importance of Systemic Thinking

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Systems and Systemic Thinking

To understand systemic thinking and apply it, first one should get familiar with the definitions of a system as well as its fundamental concepts.

Watch the video to learn more basic ideas on the classification and features of the system.

Definitions of system

Similar to management, many definitions has been provided for system. Some of definitions are presented below (Tosi, 2009; Senge, 1990; Sterman, 2000; Mar-ashi et al., 2010 & Ghobadi, 2007, as cited in Daryani, Ali & Asli-zadeh. 2012).

- System is a whole whose life possible through establishing mutual relationships among its elements (Bertalanffy)

- System embraces a series of concepts or factors which are employed for meeting a need (Miler)

- System denotes disciplined and clear planning (Johnson)

- System includes mental or physical entity which is made of dependent elements (Bakt)

- System is a set of various processes in which cause and effect relationship can be found (Wat)

- System is a group of interrelated factors that receive input from environment, then transfer them, and finally sends output to the environment (Daft)

- System has transaction with the outside world as an entity (Feller)

- System is anything that gains its form and totality from interaction of its constituents. Its elements have common goal and act in similar way and these elements are acting with each other (Sange)

Quick check: True or False?

  • System is a whole whose life is possible through establishing mutual relationships among its elements.
  • System includes only a linear processes among different variables.

Elements of Systemic Thinking

To effectively manage a multi-minded, multipurpose, social system, managers must understand the motivation behind the behavior of the various elements of the system.

These elements are synthetic/ holistic thinking, dynamic thinking, and closed-loop thinking.

Synthetic/ Holistic Thinking

The first element is rooted in the concept of synthetic/ holistic thinking.

Synthetic thinking attempts to understand the larger context that the system operates within.

While analytical thinking explain what the parts do and how they work, synthetic thinking explain why the parts do what they do.

In short, managers must take a holistic approach in understanding situations, communicating how and why they are prioritizing various objectives, and making decisions.

Dynamic Thinking

Dynamic thinking describes a decision maker’s ability to see phenomenon as the result of behavior over time rather than a reaction to an isolated event.

Closed-Loop Thinking

Closed-loop thinking requires the decision maker to examine the role that the structure of the system (i.e., reward systems, information flows, logistical processes, etc.) plays in creating behavior.

It also examines interactions of the system with external forces.

Synthesizing the above discussion results in the following three-part description of systemic thinking:

Synthetic/ holistic thinking- studying the role and purpose of a system and its parts to understand why they behave as they do

Dynamic Thinking- examining how the system and its parts behave over time

Closed-Loop Thinking- investigating how the parts of a system react and interact with each other and external factors

Quick check: Matching Type

  • Synthetic Thinking
    studying the role and purpose of a system and its parts to understand why they behave as they do
  • Dynamic Thinking
    examining how the system and its parts behave over time
  • Closed-loop Thinking
    investigating how the parts of a system react and interact with each other and external factors

Rules and Principles

In most of systemic thinking sources (Stoner, 1995; Tosi, 2009; Sushil, 1993, as cited in Daryani, Ali & Asli-zadeh, 2012) the rules and principles of systemic thinking has been listed under the following headings mentioned below:

- Focusing merely upon happened events and their causes should be avoided; rather the patterns of changes should be discerned.

- System problems mainly need to be examined internally rather than externally, and the environmental conditions shouldn’t be reprimanded.

- What holds true for each member and part of system can not necessarily ring true for entire system.

- The best way for characterizing phenomena is determining relationships among its constituents.

- The effect of structure of system on performance of its parts is more than the effect of performance of its parts on structure of system.

- Procrastination in any issue and to any extent is considered as kind of wasting and reason of entropy; therefore it must to be removed.

- Discovering cause and effect relationship among variables and phenomena and even much more important that it is finding correlations among them.

- Defining accurate boundaries for system results in making sensible decisions.

- Dynamic thinking can explore more effective ways for solving problems than static thinking.

- Adopting disastrous policies entail social systems’ invisible behaviors.

Quick check: Odd one- out!

Which of the following statements is NOT included in the rules and principles of Systemic Thinking?

  • System problems mainly need to be examined internally rather than externally, and the environmental conditions shouldn’t be reprimanded.
  • What holds true for each member and part of system means true for the entire system.
  • Defining accurate boundaries for system results in making sensible decisions.

Advantages

Watch the video to find out what are the advantages of Systemic Thinking as identified by Hatch (2012, as cited in Daryani, Ali & Asli-zadeh, 2012).

III. Systemic Thinking Tools (copy)

About the Tools

How do you help develop a person’s higher-level systemic thinking skills?

No one really teaches another person how to think. However, people can be taught various tools and techniques that may help the mind focus its attention in a specific way.

Fortunately, specific techniques have been developed to help people with these aspects of systemic thinking.

Causal Loop Diagrams (CLDs) and System Archetypes are two tools that could help to improve the aforementioned area.

Causal Loop Diagrams (CLDs)

Causal Loop Diagrams

Everyone involved with a specific situation has a mental image of how they believe the key elements in that situation interact. This mental image is often referred to as a mental model (Senge, 1990, as cited in Atwater & Pittman, 2006).

The Causal Loop Diagrams (CLDs) is a tool that enables individuals to communicate their mental models to others in a way that can be easily understood.

 As people learn how to develop CLDs, they improve their ability to organize and articulate their own understanding about the behavior of the systems they operate within.

Watch the video on the right side to get more ideas about CLDs.

Types of Causal Loops

CLDs are composed of two basic types of causal loops.

One causal loop is referred to as a reinforcing loop, and the other is a balancing loop.

Reinforcing Loop

Reinforcing loops have several characteristics. They are self-reinforcing, which means they compound change in one direction with even more change. Unstopped, they continue to reinforce a particular behavior.

Watch the video to learn more about reinforcing loops.

Balancing Loops

Balancing loops attempt to move some current state (the way things are) to a desired state (goal or objective) though some action (whatever is done to reach the goal).

Watch the video to learn more about balancing loops.

Let's go further!

Read pages 14-15 from the Systems Thinking Toolbox document below for more details about Reinforcing and Balancing Loops

1- Systems Thinking Toolbox

Quick check: CLDs

Click and drag the label to its corresponding image.

  • Balancing Loop
  • Reinforcing Loop

Guidelines for Drawing CLDs

Casual Loop Diagrams (CLDs) provide a language for articulating our understanding of the dynamic, interconnected nature of our world.

By stringing together several loops, we can create a coherent story about a particular problem or issue. The following are some general guidelines that should help lead through the process:

Theme Selection

Creating causal loop diagrams is a part of a process of articulating and communicating deeper insights about complex issues. It is essential to begin creating a causal loop diagram with a selected theme or issue that one wishes to understand better.

Time Horizon

It is also helpful to determine an appropriate time horizon for the issue- one long enough to see the dynamics play out. For example: a change in corporate strategy, time horizon may span several years, while a change in advertising campaigns may be on the order of months.

Behavior Over Time Charts

Identifying and drawing out the behavior over time of key variables is an important step toward articulating the current understanding of the system. The diagram should try to capture the structure that will produce the projected behavior.

Boundary Issue

Keep in mind that we are not trying to draw out the whole system- only what is critical to the theme being addressed. If one does not stay focused on the issue, one may quickly find oneself overwhelmed by the number of connections possible.

Level of Aggregation

As a rule of thumb, variables should represent patterns of behavior determined by the issue itself.

Significant Delays

Make sure to identify which (if any) links have significant delays relative to the rest of the diagram. Delays are important because they are often the source of imbalances that accumulate in the system.

Let's go further!

Read pages 18-19 of the Systems Thinking Toolbox document below for the detailed steps on Drawing CLDs.

1- Systems Thinking Toolbox

Quick check: Guidelines on Drawing CLDs

Which of the following is the general guideline on drawing CLDs which states that "variables should represent patterns of behavior, determined by the issue itself"?

  • Theme Selection
  • Level of Aggregation
  • Time Horizon

System Archetypes

Basic reinforcing and balancing loops can be joined together to form more complex feedback interactions. These common complex combinations have become known as System Archetypes.

System Archetypes are generic structures of common patterns that occur repeatedly in both personal and professional settings (Senge, 1990, as cited in Atwater & Pittman, 2006).

While reinforcing and balancing loops can be used to effectively explain a specific phenomenon, archetypes can be used to provide a more complete description of the interactions occurring within the system.

There are nine (9) commonly used archetypes which include:

1. Fixes that Fail

2. Shifting the Burden

3. Escalation

4. Drifting Goals

5. Limits to Success

6. Success to the Successful

7. Growth and Underinvestment

8. Accidental Adversaries

9. Tragedy of the Commons

Let's go further!

Read pages 20-21 from the Systems Thinking Toolbox document below for more information about the Nine (9) Commonly used Archetypes.

1- Systems Thinking Toolbox

Quick check: System Archetypes

Click and drag the label to its corresponding image.

  • Fixes that Fail
  • Growth and Underinvestment
  • Success to the Successful
  • Tragedy of the Commons

IV. The Archetype Family Tree (AFT) (copy)

About the Archetype Family Tree

The Systems Archetype Family Tree (AFT) is based on two principles: that the system archetypes are related strategically to each other, and that many situations can be described by progressing through several archetypes as they are linked on the tree.

The tool is intended to help you use the relationships between archetypes to figure out how to begin looking at a new situation, and to gain increasing understanding of a problem as you work through the tree.

Let's go further!

Read this two (2) page article entitled Using the Archetype Family Tree as a Diagnostic Tool for basic ideas on utilizing AFT.

2- Archetype Family Tree as a Diagnostic Tool

V. Final Assessment (copy)

Individual Activity: Instructions

Individual Activity

1. Choose among the following scenarios provided, and identify the archetype which you feel best fits the situation being studied.

2. Prepare an explanation for the archetype you have chosen. You may utilize the Archetype Family tree as a tool to help you select the archetype that most closely matches the situation.

3. At 1:30pm, at Room 407- 17thfloor Multi-storey building, you will join with the other participants to share in groups the archetype you have selected independently, explaining both your logic in choosing the particular and its application to the scenario.

You may choose from the three (3) scenarios provided below for your final activity.

Final Assessment_ST

Group Activity: Instructions

Group Activity

1. Within your groups, share with your co-participants the archetype you have selected independently, explaining both your logic in choosing the particular and its application to the scenario.

2. You have a total of 60 minutes for this learning engagement.

VI. Let's Wrap it Up! (copy)

Conclusion

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References

J. Atwater & P. Pittman (2006). Facilitating systemic thinking in business classes. Retrieved from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/227825811_Facilitating_Systemic_Thinking_in_Business_Classes

J. Atwater, V. Kannan, & A. Stephens (2008). Cultivating systemic thinking in the next generation of business leaders. Retrieved from: https://journals.aom.org/doi/10.5465/amle.2008.31413859

S. Daryani, S. Ali, & A. Asli-zadeh (2012). Organizational theory, systemic thinking and system management. Retrieved from: http://oaji.net/articles/2014/1012-1404467610.pdf

D. Kim (2000). Systems thinking tools: a user’s reference guide. Retrieved from: https://thesystemsthinker.com/systems-thinking-tools-a-users-reference-guide/

Acknowledgments

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