In this era, many of the phenomena and problems we face are truly complex by nature. Simple or quick and easy solutions are not a functional response that would produce permanent results. If we want to achieve sustainable change, organisations need to familiarise themselves with the models of systems thinking.
Viewing matters as parts of a whole is the most important characteristic of systems thinking. Things and phenomena are not separate from each other. They are always related to each other. These phenomena are a consequence of the ways in which we have been organised. Through systems thinking, we can organise structures and ways of thinking that create and maintain problems. Identifying the nature of the problem is done by analysing the interrelationships and interaction processes, not by individual persons, tasks, or functions. A systemic approach shows how economic, technical, and social issues and phenomena are interlinked, and how this interaction will develop into a network of ever changing challenges and opportunities.
TOWARDS SYSTEMIC CAPABILITIES
At first, steps towards systemic capability and thinking may seem challenging, but they will quickly reward once you start to see the world through new glasses. By applying a few core concepts, you can learn to use a systemic way of thinking in a bold fashion. This is a major help if you are developing the operation of networks and complex systems. Systemic capabilities can be thought of as skills, which can help in creating conditions that are suitable for changing the system. These capabilities enable the construction of conditions so that the system develops in a desired direction, in an even more sustainable manner in relation to the bigger picture.
A leader in systems thinking, Donella Meadow, encouraged people to first stop and observe the situation: “Before you disturb the system in any way, watch how it behaves.” The aim is to identify recurring phenomena in the thought process, activities or interaction of the system. The goal is not to diagnose the symptoms, but to understand how an organisation’s operating structures, for example, create its symptoms. Observing the system can provide answers to how problems have arisen and how their solution attempts might impact the development of problems.
COMPREHENSIVENESS IS PART OF UNDERSTANDING RELATIONS
A basic skill in the systemic approach is a way to comprehensively view the world. Always ask questions in relation to a bigger picture. Comprehensiveness helps us to see in change what bigger purpose a system serves and how it interacts with this bigger picture.
Depending on the point of view, we can identify different entities and purposes for systems. Comprehensiveness is continuous curiosity, it is asking how a culture within an organisation shapes the actors and how the actors in turn shape the organisation. The poet Rumi described this reciprocity of parts and the perception of the whole in his famous story The Elephant in the Dark. In the story, people in the dark were trying to make sense of what was happening by feel when an unknown animal was brought in for them to examine. Not one single person understood the concept of an elephant, but by combining different perspectives, people started to realise what was going on. This is a change in understanding how the properties of systems come about in interaction between their parts and in relation to the bigger picture
A SYSTEMIC APPROACH REQUIRES REVIEWING WAYS OF THINKING
The prevailing way of thinking still going strong within organisations is that things are divided into small, controlled parts by means of a reductive way of thinking. This has led to many magnificent things, but this has also resulted in a way of thinking that creates silos and boxes to just prevent us from seeing a bigger picture based on synergies.
Ways of thinking are the beliefs that have generated organisational structures and practices and that are expressed in ways to assess and monitor activities. On the other hand, a systemic approach helps us to understand these ways of thinking in a more concrete manner, to identify those that are no longer functional, and to look for alternative perspectives to see beyond the boxes.
Ways of thinking will remain alive in daily discussions within communities. They classify things and place them in boxes and silos, good and bad, desired or undesirable. The discussions maintain or change our world views. Hermanni Hyytiälä gives a good representation of how a distorted way of thinking can control the whole system and organise it in a problematic way in terms of the purpose of its operation.
FEEDBACK CYCLES SHAPE SYSTEMS
A dynamo for system development is the feedback cycle that is built between things. The feedback cycle describes how things and events have a reciprocal effect on each other. As a result of feedback cycles, the bigger picture becomes something different than just a sum of its parts. When people talk, they continuously have a reciprocal effect on each other. The discussion is not a linear event where a message is only forwarded, but it always has an impact on its parties. The two most important feedback cycles in a system are the following: 1) reaffirming, 2) balancing feedback cycles.
A reaffirming feedback relationship will make a similar event recur. This can be growth or degradation within the system. In communities, the feeling of hope, fear or courage is strengthened due to the quality of the feedback links between the parties. In the economy, this reaffirming feedback is reflected in the compound interest phenomenon. Reaffirming feedback cycles are usually non-linear, meaning that the development path they create can be radically faster after a certain point.
The nature of balancing feedback cycles is the opposite, meaning that they try to maintain the desired situation in the system and preserve the current situation. This is how a thermostat operates in relation to the room temperature or legislation in relation to the deviations in society. Balancing links aim to slow down the changes in the system and return things to the “way they were”. By understanding these balancing links, it is easier to perceive why systems are stuck and change does move forward.
EMERGENCE AND SYNTHESIS ARE THE BEST ASSETS IN AN ORGANISATION
Emergence is a natural characteristic of systems. It means that something new and partly unpredictable appears when things interact with each other. Emergence develops all the time in organisations, which is why an essential systemic capability is the readiness to create preconditions for using emergence. Structures and ways of thinking are required to learn how to detect what is new and different. Detecting and using deviations are at the core of a self-directed organisation. They are also the key capabilities in an organisation that aims at high-quality development.
As a result of emergence, the whole is always something other than just its parts. It is a different living entity that gives rise to new shapes and structures without any design. An entity is synthesis that cannot be restored to its components just by analysing it. We need capabilities for synthesis for using the new and the old. Something that is new and deviant usually disturbs the existing system, and its significance cannot be immediately understood. Experiments, learning, and perhaps even radically new ways of thinking are required to exploit the potential of synthesis.
CAUSAL RELATIONSHIPS AND SYSTEM MAPS VISUALISE THE SYSTEMIC NATURE
Visual modelling or mapping of systems is a practical and effective method to visualise how the dynamics between system operators’ work and what types of structures enable the occurrence of problematic phenomena.
System maps help to identify the systemic innovations required to replace operational structures that create problems with more comprehensive and socially sustainable solutions. It is also part of systems thinking that the usefulness of the map can only be proven by learning from experiments. The map changes and develops together with the experiments. Maps are just maps, not reality. As George Box put it, “All models are incorrect, but some of them are useful.”
A system map can, for example, clarify how a problem might only become stronger by increasing resources to solve it. Homelessness is a great example of this. Only by providing money or resources to resolve the problem might homelessness actually increase, because problematic system structures and ways of thinking that shape them do not change.
Traditionally, in organisations, thinking tools have followed and measured issues as static overviews. Still images of finances or well-being have steered societies to act reactively, to tackle just the symptoms, not the causes. Without recognising the dynamics between diverse factors and contexts behind these symptoms, the same phenomena will surface yet again. Systemic capabilities can be used to identify organisations as living processes.
When striving to make transformative and deeper dimensional changes, we should keep on asking what beliefs our methods and organisation include. Are the problems that we solve results of prevailing ways of thinking, and can we see things differently by viewing matters through systemic glasses? Changes often fail because we start to implement a solution without genuinely focusing on what is happening in the system and within what kind of causal relationships the solution is planned.
One characteristic of systemic problems is that they tend to be results of the ways in which we have organised our structures. We are good at recognising concrete things, but less fluent in understanding how things are interlinked. We are also good at simplifying things in retrospect, but poor in understanding how things develop further. Even though the properties and consequences of complex systems are always partially unpredictable, we can learn to understand the nature of the system’s operations and thus, succeed in softening the consequences of any undesired effects.