Why and How to Use Systems Thinking in Problem-Solving

System Thinking in our modern world

“System thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static snapshots.” — Peter Senge

A solution to a problem has side effects, which can later reinforce the problem or cause new problems. Therefore, we need to approach the problems that we try to tackle with a more holistic view. A systems mindset helps us to get an overview and to understand how everything is connected and can help us to prevent undesirable side effects.

There are different aspects to system thinking such as:

Interconnectedness and Synthesis

All components of a system are in some way dependent on each other. Some more directly than others. E.g. humans need air, water, and food to preserve our bodies. Trees provide oxygen. For that, they need carbon dioxide as well as sunlight. Everything is dependent on some other factor. This way we can regard systems as complex arrays of somehow connected components. Synthesis is about explaining the whole as well as single components and their connections at the same time.

Non-linearity and Feedback Loops

A factor causing an effect on another component. That is linear thinking. A system thinker realizes that through interconnectedness a (desirable) effect can backfire. Thus a system contains feedback loops. E.g. trying to straighten a table cloth can lead to a new bump at another location.

Systems Mapping

Mapping systems helps us to apply this mindset. There are many tools for that. I am very fond of a method called “Big Picture”. Hereby you map your understanding of the situation, the problem you try to solve, and all affected components in a visual way. You then refine this picture iteratively as your understanding of the situation and the context increases. You can use this image not only to shape and understand the systems affected by your actions i.e. interventions but also to create a common understanding among all other participants of affected parties.

Try the following steps:

  1. Pin a large paper to the wall and prepare some pens of different colors.
  2. In the center of this paper state the problem that you want to explore.
  3. Then add everything that relates in some way to the situation at hand.
  4. When you can’t think of any more things to add, take a break, and review your work thus far. Give yourself a few minutes to make sure you haven’t forgotten any important aspects.
  5. Start drawing connections between the different aspects that you gathered.
  6. When you’re finished the paper should look like one big mess and you’ll likely have gained some new insights. Write them down.
  7. Then start to disentangle the picture. Grab a new paper and try to draw the systems that you mapped previously in an organized way.

After this exercise, you’ll have a clearer understanding of the situation, new ideas, and a good basis for communicating them.

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