SYSTEMS THINKING

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Systems Thinking

“Systems thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things.” ~ Peter Senger

One of the biggest breakthroughs in how we understand and guide change in organizations is systems theory and systems thinking. To understand how they are used in organizations, we first must understand a system. Many of us have an intuitive understanding of the term. However, we need to make the understanding explicit in order to use systems thinking and systems tools in organizations.

Simply put, a system is an organized collection of parts (or subsystems) that are highly integrated to accomplish an overall goal. The system has various inputs, which go through certain processes to produce certain outputs, which together, accomplish the overall desired goal for the system. So a system is usually made up of many smaller systems, or subsystems. For example, an organization is made up of many administrative and management functions, products, services, groups and individuals. If one part of the system is changed, the nature of the overall system is often changed, as well — by definition then, the system is systemic, meaning relating to, or affecting, the entire system. (This is not to be confused with systematic, which can mean merely that something is methodological. Thus, methodological thinking — systematic thinking — does not necessarily mean systems thinking.)

Systems range from simple to complex. There are numerous types of systems. For example, there are biological systems (for example, the heart), mechanical systems (for example, a thermostat), human/mechanical systems (for example, riding a bicycle), ecological systems (for example, predator/prey) and social systems (for example, groups, supply and demand and also friendship). Complex systems, such as social systems, are comprised of numerous subsystems, as well. These subsystems are arranged in hierarchies, and integrated to accomplish the overall goal of the overall system. Each subsystem has its own boundaries of sorts, and includes various inputs, processes, outputs and outcomes geared to accomplish an overall goal for the subsystem. Complex systems usually interact with their environments and are, thus, open systems.

A high-functioning system continually exchanges feedback among its various parts to ensure that they remain closely aligned and focused on achieving the goal of the system. If any of the parts or activities in the system seems weakened or misaligned, the system makes necessary adjustments to more effectively achieve its goals.

A pile of sand is not a system. If you remove a sand particle, you have still got a pile of sand. However, a functioning car is a system. Remove the carburetor and you no longer have a working car.

“Everything affects everything else in one way or another. Whether you are aware of that or not does not change the fact that this is what is happening.” ~ John Woods

Related Pages:
Big Picture
Butterfly Effect
Deep Ecology

2 Responses

  1. Systems thinking(a form of logic) is primarily a concept for the business world while quantum mechanics is a theory of the natural world(a form of interrelatedness).

  2. Some quantum physicists would beg to differ about that one grain of sand not being part of a system. If one grain is insignificant then sand as a whole is insignificant; as sand is made up of individual grains. It is the contribution of each grain that indeed makes all the sand in the world a whole. We as a whole are equal to all our sums together. If one grain is not part of a system then neither is one person. If we remove one person from the population we still have a population; Remove all the individual people, we no longer have a population. In our vast space are we even as large as a single grain of sand? Is our Earth? I say one grain of sand is part of a system only because I know that EVERYTHING that exists is part of a system.

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