The Importance of Systems Thinking

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Image courtesy of Wiley & Sons

Back in the 1950s a British gentleman by the name of Stafford Beer began to think carefully about how people organize themselves in business entities to get things done. He developed a concept he called cybernetics, which over time became known as systems thinking. A few decades later another Brit, this time a personable academic by the name of Peter Checkland, developed Beer’s ideas much further and created an approach he called Soft Systems Methodology.

Checkland’s insight was that anything to do with human beings will be fuzzy, or soft. There won’t be the hard mathematical formalism possible with creating logic gates or workflows across a machine floor or software code. But as humans gather together to achieve real-world outcomes, it is essential that we have ways to structure these collaborative efforts in order to improve the odds of a successful outcome. Hence the need to be able to deal with soft systems that involve people and all our quirks.

There are two fundamental concepts in systems thinking.

The first concept is that a system is an integrated set of components that has emerged via evolution or (in the case of human-originated systems) intentional design that has a purpose which is specified as one or more desired outputs or behaviors.

The second concept is that a system will have an emergent property.

This second concept is the most powerful idea to come out of systems thinking so we’ll explore it a little now.

An emergent property is a quality dependent upon the level of abstraction one uses to consider the system in question. By way of example, let’s think about water: that collection of H2O molecules upon which life on Earth depends. When we look at H2O from a quantum theory perspective we’re interested in the spin of the electrons and the constituents of the protons and neutrons of the three nuclei. We might even be interested in the bonding energies and the fact the molecule is polar. But when we step back and look at a massive collection of H2O molecules at standard temperature and pressure (our system) the emergent property of wetness becomes evident.

Another example is a whale. We can look into the cells of a whale and our perspective here is one of cellular biology, biochemistry, and genetics. But when we step back and look at the entire whale (our system) we see a wide range of purposive behaviors such as hunting for food and seeking a mate.

The wetness of water and the behavior of whales are emergent properties. The illusion of consciousness we humans experience is an emergent property of the way our brains are structured. The emergent property of an AI-based trading system on Wall Street could potentially be unplanned volatility in share prices or even a global financial collapse. The emergent property of a large group of people could easily be (and too often is) mindless violence.

Checkland’s work attempted to map systems theory onto tractable organizational problems. To that end, systems thinking seeks to identify a meaningful set of components that collectively result in particular behaviors and/or outputs. A simple example would be a marketing communications team. Each person has a set of roles and responsibilities intended to contribute to the team’s ability to create desired outputs. Often, of course, things don’t work as intended and this is where systems thinking can step in to analyze why things aren’t working and make recommendations for changes that will improve the behavior of the system itself.

The difficulty with systems thinking is that as individuals we’re not used to regarding ourselves as components of something that has an emergent property “above” our individual perspective. It’s possible to learn about Checkland’s Soft Systems Methodology and apply it mechanically, but the most profound results derive from a more sophisticated approach. Not surprisingly, soft systems methodology has been widely employed in the UK where it originated, and elsewhere occasionally, in order to arrive at detailed specifications for software products and for re-engineering business processes. I’ve used it myself to great effect on many occasions.

Unfortunately the philosophical implications of systems thinking haven’t been much developed since Checkland’s work in the 1980s, and hardly at all with regards to human systems.

Personally I believe this to be a missed opportunity. As a proponent of evolutionary psychology I suspect the next major development in systems thinking will occur when researchers incorporate it into the study of human behaviors. In the meantime, anyone interested in soft systems thinking should find a copy of Peter Checkland’s seminal work Systems Thinking, Systems Practice, 1981 published by Wiley & Sons.

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Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

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