Saturday, September 12, 2015

What’s the Big Shift Towards Systems Thinking

There's a big shift toward ST as being a complex adaptive system based on simple rules.

Systems Thinking is to understand the interconnectivity between parts and the whole. This wholeness comprises various media that are each functionally contrary to the unitive, fluid and seamless nature of the whole. Or to put simply, Systems Thinking is to see the trees without missing forest. But what are the emergent trends of Systems Thinking, and how to leverage Systems Thinking in strategy crafting and problem-solving?

There is a significant philosophical difference between different forms of Systems Thinking: The evidence of the evolution of Systems Thinking is more than an interdisciplinary activity, but a trans-disciplinary one. Surely there has been an interest in connecting Systems Thinking to complexity and chaos theory and complex adaptive systems. Exactly what this looks like must surely be different depending on which type of Systems Thinking is being connected. Universality in ST means it cuts across multiple approaches and methods (the plurality of Systems Thinking methods). ST as Complexity Adaptive System means we can identify the simple rules that underlie all forms of Systems Thinking. From a personal perspective, there’s observable behavioral change in focus from 'better understanding of solutions' to 'better understanding of problems' in an attempt to address perceived increase in system complexity, a tangible recognition that success is a holistic endeavor that needs collaboration and continuous learning. There is a big increase in a cross-silo, cross-discipline, and continuous exploration.

The strongest trend of ST is in developing areas of application - taking some existing core approaches and applying those in new areas or to new problems. So a few examples include the use of systems approaches to the evaluation of interventions, work on the use of systems approaches in complex projects. Most of the development work we do follows that pattern, so building on "standard" systems approaches for specific areas of application: organizational change, strategic risk, performance management, complex projects, business ethics etc. “Hidden in the common sense or craft knowledge of the systems practitioner are ontological and epistemological presuppositions. In not exploring these, Systems Thinking has failed to take full advantage of opportunities to learn from practice and to develop as a discipline." - Quote.

There's a big shift toward ST as being a complex adaptive system based on simple rules. In some ways there appears to be a shift back towards engineering based forms of Systems Thinking (away from approaches more focused on the wider indirect sociological influences) - The shift appears in keeping with a wider ideological shift back towards faith in technology and its ability to solve all the world’s problems. Also, there's a significant shift involving universality where in the past the focus has been on pluralism.1). A shift from what a system IS to what it DOES to its context. 2). A shift from seeing a system as a set of interconnected components to seeing a system as a set of interwoven threads. It is in a systemic approach to strategy, which brings us back to the purpose. There is a tension relating to the fact that the system may be set up in a way which is supportive of the current purpose, or it may not. When we rethink the purpose, our understanding of the system is critical to our ability to reshape the system in order to fulfill that intention. It's sensible to set the definitional boundaries. Systems Thinkers should revisit the continued relevance and application of definitions but see no need why the wheel must be reinvented in its entirety.

Systems Thinking is neither positive nor negative. Systems Thinking is more as a tool, not an object. If System Thinking is "effective," its effect can be positive or negative in any given value system. Whether that effect was intended might be a result of the System Thinker's ability, mind, and attitude. With now many organizations are on the journey of digital transformation, the Systems Thinking progression is to be sensitive to the emergent trend, to keep balanced thinking, not via the stillness, but through the state of the flow with the harmony of interconnectivity and interdependence.


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