Collaborator's Login

How to use systems


When considering systems work, it is important to first determine the kind of problem you are working with, and choose the approach accordingly.

First, we need to understand the type of problem we are addressing. Is it simple (how to fill a hole in the road), complicated (how to build the road) or complex (how to address traffic congestion)?

 

 Simple problemsComplicated problems Complex problems
Understanding
the problem
ClearSome areas of uncertaintyHighly uncertain
Utility of rulesSame rules apply every timeRules are refined over time, eventually becoming repeatableNo direct transference of rules from one context to the next
OutcomeGuaranteed same outcome each timeA high degree of certainty that outcome is predictableHighly unpredictable and uncertain outcome
ExpertiseGenerally not requiredHigh level of expertise in specific areasFocus on understanding context first, bring expertise as required
SuccessFollow the protocol, with the same parts every timeExperiment with a formula to determine protocolRespond to and learn from the dynamics of the context as they emerge
Adapted from: Westley, Zimmerman and Patton. 2006. Getting to Maybe: How the world has changed.

 

Systems thinking is useful because it can:

  • Anticipate and avoid long-term consequences of well-intentioned solutions
  • Engage with complexity, rather than ignore it
  • Motivate continuous learning
  • Mobilise stakeholders to see shared interest and the system
  • Identify leverage points for systems change

Challenges can arise when problem-solving approaches that are useful for complicated problems are applied to complex problems. This can often result in quick fixes that fail to recognise and intervene in the root causes of problems. It can also lead to new or worse problems because we have failed to understand the relationships between parts in the system.

By recognising the complex nature of the problem, and applying systems thinking approaches, investigations can delve below the surface and identify the fundamental and interconnecting causes of the complex issue – such as the patterns of behaviour, the underlying structure and the beliefs of the people and organisations responsible for creating that complex issue.

When considering systems work, it is important to first determine the kind of problem you are working with, and choose the approach accordingly.

First, we need to understand the type of problem we are addressing. Is it simple (how to fill a hole in the road), complicated (how to build the road) or complex (how to address traffic congestion)?

 

 Simple problemsComplicated problems Complex problems
Understanding
the problem
ClearSome areas of uncertaintyHighly uncertain
Utility of rulesSame rules apply every timeRules are refined over time, eventually becoming repeatableNo direct transference of rules from one context to the next
OutcomeGuaranteed same outcome each timeA high degree of certainty that outcome is predictableHighly unpredictable and uncertain outcome
ExpertiseGenerally not requiredHigh level of expertise in specific areasFocus on understanding context first, bring expertise as required
SuccessFollow the protocol, with the same parts every timeExperiment with a formula to determine protocolRespond to and learn from the dynamics of the context as they emerge
Adapted from: Westley, Zimmerman and Patton. 2006. Getting to Maybe: How the world has changed.

 

Systems thinking is useful because it can:

  • Anticipate and avoid long-term consequences of well-intentioned solutions
  • Engage with complexity, rather than ignore it
  • Motivate continuous learning
  • Mobilise stakeholders to see shared interest and the system
  • Identify leverage points for systems change

Challenges can arise when problem-solving approaches that are useful for complicated problems are applied to complex problems. This can often result in quick fixes that fail to recognise and intervene in the root causes of problems. It can also lead to new or worse problems because we have failed to understand the relationships between parts in the system.

By recognising the complex nature of the problem, and applying systems thinking approaches, investigations can delve below the surface and identify the fundamental and interconnecting causes of the complex issue – such as the patterns of behaviour, the underlying structure and the beliefs of the people and organisations responsible for creating that complex issue.

There are a number of ways in which systems thinking differs from conventional thinking in terms of how we conceive of and approach problems. This influences the goal of an investigation into a problem, and who and how we chose to engage people and resources in the investigation.

 

 Conventional thinkingSystems thinking
How a problem is exploredIsolate parts to understand behaviourExplore emergent nature of the system as a whole
GoalCreate a solution to solve the problemDeepen understanding of the system and identify a response to test
Nature of the problemCan be defined and isolated, with a clear cause and a solution. Problems can be understood objectivelyA situation has multiple causes, with no clear single solution. Wicked problems are understood differently depending on perspective
Who is responsible for the solution?External/othersEveryone is a part of the system and therefore needs to engage in change
How solutions are achievedMultiple short term success leads to long term solutionsMost action has unintended consequences. Need to test, seek feedback and adapt responses
How the problem can be solvedImprove parts to improve wholeImprove whole through improving relationships between parts
Problem solving processLinear process with clear steps, start and finishMultiple entry points, non-linear process focused on learning and iterating
Adapted from: Ison, R. 2010. Systems Practice: How to Act in a Climate-Change World.

Systems thinking is both a way of seeing the system (a perspective) and the application of a set of tools and methods. It is important to distinguish between the two, as well as understand how they need to be taken together to understand the systems as a whole.

Tools and methods

Systems tools and methods include:

  • Systems dynamic modelling
  • Causal loop diagrams
  • Social network analysis
  • Outcome mapping
  • Assumption-based planning
  • Soft systems methodology
  • Critical systems heuristics.

Systems tools and methods seek to serve a particular purpose, have a specific strategy for implementation, and have data input requirements. They require the user to develop proficiency, and once achieved, the tool or method can be applied over again.

Practice

In undertaking system thinking activities, we want to have a high capacity to see, and sense a system (i.e. patterns, structures, relationships, boundaries, feedback loops and unintended consequences of actions). We can build our capacity to do this by engaging regularly in a systems practice. This means regularly reflecting on our assumptions and mental models, and exploring unintended consequences of actions and how we listen and learn from other perspectives. These practices will enhance our capacity to see and sense the system when we engage with specific tools such as causal loop diagrams or systems mapping.

Systems tools and methods can be applied by anyone to any situation. However, the outcomes will be influenced by the perspective of the individuals applying the tools, and therefore different results will be achieved each time. When a practitioner has a strong systems practice, this will shift and broaden the available outcomes of the work because a wider range of inputs are engaged.