My product management toolkit (48): Systems Thinking
“No problem ever exists in complete isolation. Every problem interacts with every other problem and is therefore part of a set of interrelated problem, a system of problems.”
Rusell Ackoff, pioneer in systems thinking, used to explain that “A system isn’t the sum of the behaviour of its parts; it’s the product of its interactions.” Rather than looking at each separate part of a system, Ackoff urges us to study the interactions between the different parts that make up a system. Systems are plentiful, these are some good Example:
These are some randomly chosen but relevant examples of a ‘system’. Whether we’re talking healthcare, cities, corporations, universities or gaming platforms, these systems have the following in common:
- Structures (institutions)
- Relationships (stakeholders and power dynamics)
- Paradigms (culture and mindsets)
These system components were first defined by Donella Meadows — environmental scientist and systems thinker — and she used the mapping of system as way to identify opportunities for change and innovation. By developing our understanding of a system, and how a system interacts within a certain environment, we create a more thorough understanding of the problem(s) to solve.
Meadows and her editor, Diana Wright, share some questions to help us figure out whether we’re looking at a system or just going through a bunch of ‘stuff’:
- Can you identify parts?
- Do the parts affect each other?
- Do the parts together produce an effect that is different from effect of each part on its own?
- Does the effect, the behaviour over time, persist in a variety of circumstances?
Techniques like below ‘Iceberg Model’ help us move beyond simply observing certain or events or data and instead exploring underlying causes or patterns. Systems Thinking can be regarded as a diagnostic tool, enabling us to look at problems from multiple angles and help us ask better questions.
I like the concrete example of the Iceberg Model based on our own health as developed by Systems Innovation. Catching a cold or breaking a leg would be an event. We’d speak of a pattern if we were catching colds or breaking a bone on a more regular basis. The underlying systematic structures could be due to an unsustainable work-life balance (causing frequent colds) or risky outdoor activities resulting in fractures. These structures might in term be the outcome of a mental model surrounding our identity as a hard working or sporty person.
“Systems 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.’
“System Maps” are another way to both apply and visually represent systems thinking. Take, for example, below map outlining the different parts involved in deforestation in Brazil.
The point of these maps is to spend time identifying and understanding the different components of a system and the problems they might cause or amplify. Once we’ve done this, the next step is to think about ‘interventions’; areas where you think taking action would have a positive effect through the system.
In upcoming posts, I’ll cover more system thinking techniques as well as systems design [not to be confused with a design system!]. We’ll see how techniques like casual loop diagrams can help us better understand systems and the interactions within a system, and how we can best (re) design systems accordingly.
Main learning point: Having started learning about systems thinking, I can see how this discipline really helps in applying a ‘360 degree’ view to problem understanding. Rather than looking at events or problems in isolation, systems thinking helps us in identifying in underlying causes and connections with other events.
Related links for further learning: