Systems Theory & Thinking
David X. Swenson PhD LP
Familiar Systems
So…how would
you define a
“system”?
And what are its
characteristics?
Rube Goldberg “System”
Characteristics of a “system”
• Systems are comprised of elements or components.
These can be people, events, actions, etc.
• There are connections or relationships between and among these elements.
• There are usually some form of feedback or feedforward that form cycles.
• Systems have boundaries that include some things and exclude others
• Cycles or subsystems are organized as part of larger systems or
hierarchies.
• Mechanisms in the system tend to maintain them; they resist change
• A system are structured in ways that produce outcomes which can be
viewed as a goal, purpose, or at least a functional direction.
• Cycles may have thresholds after which something else happens
• A systems exchanges with its environment in a manner that enables it to
adapt; not to adapt risks adverse consequences
Organizational “Learning Disabilities” that interfere with
systems thinking (Senge, 1991)
• “I am my position” – Overidentification with our positions and
roles can limit our thinking of possibilities outside that barrier.
• “The enemy is out there”– blame things outside ourselves when
things go wrong to avoid responsibility as a change agent
• The illusion of taking charge– we are reacting even when we call it
proactive; we aren’t acting “on” something– we are participating in it
• Fixation on events– focusing on isolated events rather than relationships,
patterns, and cycles
• Parable of the boiled frog– we accommodate to stresses which become the
new norm and overlook counter-intuitive solutions
• The delusion of learning from experience– learning involves knowledge
(application) not just information; novel challenges may be unrelated to
previous experience and require new constructions
• The myth of the management team– they may become preoccupied in turf
wars, presume their expertise, and be subject to groupthink
When is Systems Thinking Appropriate?
• There are multiple perspectives on what the situation is and
how to deal with it
• Things seem to oscillate endlessly
• A previously applied fix seems to overshoot the goal
• A previously applied fix has created problems elsewhere
• After a fix is applied the problem returns in time
• Over time there is a tendency to settle for less
• The same fix is applied repeatedly
• There is a tendency to allow an established standard to slip
• Growth slows over time
• Partners for growth become adversaries
• Limitations experienced are believed to result from insufficient capacity
• There is more than one limit to growth
• Limited resources are shared by others
• Growth leads to decline elsewhere
Take time to understand the system that
supports the expression of the problem
Furthermore…”when you have 20 days to find an
answer to a problem, spend the first 19 days
understanding the question.”
Systems Principles
1. Today's problems come from yesterday's
solutions.
2. The harder you push, the harder the system
pushes back.
3. Behavior gets worse before it gets better.
4. The easy way out usually leads back in.
5. The cure can be worse than the disease.
6. Faster is slower.
7. Cause and effect are not closely related in time and space.
8. Small changes can produce big results--but the areas of highest
leverage are often the least obvious.
9. You can have your cake and eat it too--but not all at once.
10. Dividing an elephant in half does not produce two small elephants.
11. There is no blame.
What do you see?
• Mud splatters
• Satellite view of islands
• Tile floor
• Frosted window
• Tired horse
• Dog eating
• Human face
• Rorschach inkblot…
Some Systems Examples
The 7-S McKinsey model
Gelinas-James
Elements of Organizations Model
Burke-Litwin Model of
Organizational Performance
and Change
What we expect is not always what we get
Kurt Lewin’s Force Field Analysis
Fishbone or Ishikawa Diagram
Systems Approach to Force Field Analysis
http://www.idrc.ca/events-swaminathan/ev-85414-201-1-DO_TOPIC.html
India/China
native
species
Mexico
Mynah
Turtle
Dove
Lantana
camara
Plant
+
No. of
birds
army worm
population
+
Seeds
Berries
+
Larvae
Eradication of
Lantana
makes room
for even more
invasive
species
Agromyzid
Fly
Grassland
Sugarcane
cattle
grazing
Financial
stability
India/China
native
species
Mexico
+
_
Mynah
Turtle
Dove
Lantana
camara
Plant
+
+
Seeds
No. of
birds
army worm
population
_
Berries
+
Larvae
Eradication of
Lantana
makes room
for even more
invasive
species
Agromyzid
Fly
Grassland
Sugarcane
cattle
grazing
Financial
stability
India/China
native
species
Mexico
Mynah
Turtle
Dove
Lantana
camara
Plant
_
No. of
birds
_
Seeds
_
army worm
population
Berries
_
Larvae
Eradication
of Lantana
makes room
for even
more
invasive
species
Grassland
Sugarcane
+
Agromyzid
Fly
cattle
grazing
Financial
stability
India/China
native
species
Mexico
_
Lantana
camara
Plant
_
+
Seeds
_
Mynah
Turtle
Dove
No. of
birds
_
army worm
population
Berries
_
+
Eradication
of Lantana
makes room
for even
more
invasive
species
Larvae
Grassland
Sugarcane
+
Agromyzid
Fly
cattle
grazing
Financial
stability
India/China
native
species
Mexico
Mynah
Turtle Dove
Lantana
camara
Plant
army worm
population
_
Seeds
Berries
_
No. of
birds
_
Larvae
Eradication
of Lantana
makes room
for even
more
invasive
species
Grassland
Sugarcane
+
Agromyzid
Fly
cattle
grazing
Financial
stability
India/China
native
species
Mexico
Mynah
Turtle
Dove
Lantana
camara
Plant
+
army worm
population
No. of
birds
Seeds
Berries
Larvae
Eradication
of Lantana
makes room
for even
more
invasive
species
_
_
_
Grassland
Sugarcane
_
Agromyzid
Fly
cattle
grazing
_
_
Financial
stability
India/China
native
species
Mexico
Mynah
Turtle Dove
Lantana
camara
Plant
No. of
birds
army worm
population
Seeds
Berries
Larvae
Eradication of
Lantana
makes room
for even more
invasive
species
Agromyzid
Fly
Grasslands
Sugarcane
cattle
grazing
Financial
stability
How to Tell the Story from a Loop
• Start anywhere. Pick the element, for instance, of most
immediate concern.
• Any element may go up or down at various points in time. What has the
element been doing at this moment? Try out language which describes the
movement: As Acme's sales level goes up . . . goes down . . . improves . . .
deteriorates. . . increases. . . decreases. . . rises. . . falls . . . soars . . . drops. . .
waxes . . . wanes . . .
• Describe the impact this movement produces on the next element As Acme's
sales level goes down, the number of efforts to sell new accounts goes up.
• Continue the story back to your starting place. Use phrases that show causal
interrelationship: "This in turn, causes . . ." or ". . . which influences . . ." or ". . .
then adversely affects . . ." As Acme's sales level goes down, the number of
efforts to sell new accounts goes up. This means the level of service drops,
which in turn influences sales to continue falling . . .
• Try not to tell the story in cut-and-dried, mechanistic fashion. When service
problems rise, sales fall. As sales fall, sales force efforts rise. Instead, make it
come alive. Add illustrations and short anecdotes so others know exactly what
you mean.... This means the level of service drops. We just can't keep to the
delivery schedules we promised. Loyal customers, in turn, become upset.
Some stop doing business with us . . .
Now it’s your turn!
• For a given problem or issue, what are the
key components, events, people, behaviors, or
operations involved? Any related, less obvious ones?
• Draw a causal map that shows the
connections among these for the current problem
• Use a plus or minus sign to show whether the connection increases
(contributes to) or decreases (limits or controls) the next link
• Identify and draw feedback loops
• Consider nodes or event points for potential change intervention
• Trace the possible flow of impact downstream from the interventions
Some Limitations of the
Systems Approach
• Systems usually involve a high level of complexity,
sometimes beyond the feasibility of modeling
• Tolerance of and preference for complexity is a personality feature and
some people may dislike it
• A system map is dependent on the factors that are identified; too often
there are unknown variables, although they may emerge later as
awareness increases
• Don’t use systems approach when the problem is simple and does not
require double-loop learning
• Events or nodes on a systems map are usually significant events. It may be
that very small and relatively unnoticeable events are key points as well.
• Teaching systems thinking takes time that some clients may not believe is
justified.
• As larger system constraints become clear, change may be less feasible
(although that may save wasted effort, and still leads to considering
alternatives)
The End…not really, systems go on and on and…
Revenge Effects– Interesting failures to use systems thinking
Some excellent links
http://managementhelp.org/systems/syste
ms.htm#anchor123477 McNamara’s
Systems Thinking page
http://www.systems-thinking.org/index.htm
Bellinger’s Mental Models website
http://www.tonnievanderzouwen.nl/English
%20version/methods4.html Overview of
the causal loop archetypes
http://www.aces.ac.uk/PantanalInternationa
lNetwork.htm Causal loop diagram
application to Brazil’s water problem
http://www.stsc.hill.af.mil/crosstalk/2004/03
/0403West.html Applying ST in process
development with emphasis on fixes that
backfire and shifting the burden models
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