T306 Block1: Activity 5

Make notes on what you think are the main features of systems thinking.

Systems thinking, for me, involves the process of describing and understanding systems as wholes. Rather than taking a reductionist view of a system, a wider scope is strived for and systems thinkers attempt to understand how each component of a system might be connected to (and interact with) other system components. All systems involve some level of connectedness, and this must be understood.

Systems thinkers use intuition to make initial statements about how systems work. This isn’t some ‘new agey’ way of making things up as you go along, but a method for us to use our existing knowledge of a subject and apply it to a system using modelling and reflection. It’s about avoiding over-thinking a problem and taking a high-level view, from which more detail can be gathered.

Systems thinkers will look at problems from multiple perspectives. In systems involving people each person will have their own worldview and perspectives and these must always be considered when attempting to understand social problems.

This will do for now. There are other systems thinking concepts that I haven’t mentioned, but the crux of systems thinking is about understanding the whole (holism) by figuring out how everything is connected.

Update: 25/1/12 12:45

The course notes have brought up an interesting way of looking at systems thinking. There’s that famous saying about “not seeing the woods for the trees”, meaning that we are often so focussed on details that we miss the larger context of situations. Systems thinking is about looking at the wood in order to see the trees in context.

It’s also true to say that as systems thinkers we will never be able to understand everything that might happen within a system. All we are trying to do is improve our understanding of systems enough to see where we might see emergent properties of the situations under study. The study of climate change is a good example of this – our climate is so complex, with many interdependent properties, that a purely reductionist view of certain parts of the system would fail to bring much enlightenment. However, a systemic study – involving a broader look at the whole of the problem – gives us a better idea how all the various parts might interact, giving us a clue as to what may occur in the future.

Once the whole is better understood then reductionist methods can give further understanding to how each connection in the system might work. Reductionism is great for detail in isolation, systemic thinking works for a more high-level, broader view of problems. Using the two together will give better results. This already happens in many sciences, whether they consider it system thinking or not.