Saturday, August 22, 2015

Is Systems Thinking more about Understanding Problems or Developing Solutions?

Systems Thinking is a set of general principles to understanding problems and creating the new worldview to see things contextually!

Systems Thinking (ST) is a method on an inquiry, to simply put: synthesis followed by analysis. By applying synthesis, we learn the purpose of any given system by understanding its role within its containing system. Hence, Systems Thinking can help both frame good questions; and provide alternative ways to see things contextually. But more specifically, is Systems Thinking more about understanding problems or developing solutions?

Firstly ST is a way of thinking about the world and, perhaps more importantly; it is a way of structuring and understanding problems. In this sense, Systems Thinking represents a worldview, and there are models and methods that embrace this worldview that were developed for addressing different types of situations. Such a systems view gains a better understanding of the problem environment and generates thinking to produce new alternate solutions. ST is concerned with consequences for people and the context within which they live.  

ST is not about developing solutions but a way of developing possible options for change where each option is sub-optimal. ST would first identify the "greatest" option as well as any lesser ones. But that ST would facilitate the selection of the most "appropriate" choice, considering known constraints. ST is not a problem-solving methodology. ST is, as Russell Ackoff explains, a change in our pattern of thought, it’s a different way of looking at things. A new perspective. The "thinking" part of ST implies an ST approach - when applied to a problem description - may yield several significantly different solution descriptions. And different ST methods are likely to yield a wider set of solutions. The ST approaches are ways of thinking about the world in order to gain a better understanding of a problematic situation in order to help decide where best to make an appropriate intervention.

Systems Thinking helps to identify multiple, perhaps interconnected problems. One of the major virtues of ST, is that within a model it is possible to identify multiple problems; at least as many as the stakeholders identified, plus the person making the model. The determination of the best among all possible solutions is done by experimentation or modeling. Any single solution will never be enough, and a system of solutions will be required, their performance will need to be monitored over time and adaptations and improvements made. Ackoff's hierarchy of "solutions" absolve, resolve, solve and dissolve can be applied to the outcomes of the experiments. The one "correct" solution to a problem is the one that advances the purpose of the containing system to the greatest degree. Hence, the purpose of business is not profit but the development of the user community (economic/social/ecological/ political, etc.) that it is contained within.

Systems Thinking is a way of life and not a box with tools and method for rational deductive outcomes. Systems thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than isolated things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static “snapshots.” It is a set of general principles to understanding problems and creating the new worldview to see things contextually.


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