A Disciplined Approach
Systems thinking is an approach for developing models to promote
our understanding of events, patterns of behavior resulting in
the events, and even more importantly, the underlying structure
responsible for the patterns of behavior. If we are interested
in addressing a particular situation it is only through our understanding
of the underlying structure that we will be able to identify the
most appropriate leverage points to effect change within the system.
After years of doing what I thought was systems thinking, one
day I asked myself the fateful question, "How is it that
I actually go about doing this?" Finding that I didn't have
a real good answer to this question prompted me to write this
paper in an attempt to sort out an answer.
A disciplined approach to systems thinking is perceived to
consist of the following steps.
Define the Situation
Develop a description of the situation as it is currently perceived.
Ensure that the description doesn't attempt to describe the situation
from the perspective of possible solutions. If there are multiple
perspectives on the situation describe those also. "Formulating
Questions" may be of some assistance in understanding
how to describe the situation.
Is Systems Thinking Appropriate?
While systems thinking is an approach that can provide a very
rational view of the situation, as well as the identification
of approaches that are highly likely to produce the desired result,
it is an approach that requires a substantial investment of effort.
The following are some of the signs that indicate a systems thinking
approach is most likely warranted.
- There are multiple perspectives on just what the situation
is, and how to deal with it.
- Things seem to oscillate endlessly.
- A previously applied fix seems to overshoot the goal
- A previously applied fix has created problems elsewhere
- Over time there is a tendency to settle for less
- After a fix is applied the problem returns in time
- The same fix is used repeatedly
- There is a tendency to allow an established standard to slip
- Growth slows over time
- Partners for growth become adversaries
- Limitations experienced are believed to result from insufficient
- There is more than one limit to growth
- Limited resources are shared by others
- Growth leads to decline elsewhere
These are the most often experienced situations indicating
a systems thinking approach is appropriate. These indicators are
actually an interrelated set of systems archetypes, which are
described in "theWay of Systems".
A systems thinking approach is unwarranted whenever the situation
contains no balancing or reinforcing feedback. That is, when the
action and the result has no affect on the actors, which is actually
very seldom the case.
Develop Patterns of Behavior
To really understand the evolution of the situation it is appropriate
to collect historical data and plot the patterns of behavior over
time. While this may be a tedious step in the process it is essential
to have patterns to use as a reference for validating the following
Evolve the Underlying Structure
Before attempting to deal with a situation it is appropriate
to develop an understanding of why the system is behaving the
way it is. The underlying structure provides a view of the interactions
between the elements of the system which are responsible for producing
the patterns of behavior. "Change
Management: The Columbo Approach" depicts the difficulty
associated with the dynamic equilibrium in existing systems. If
there are multiple perspectives on what structure is responsible
for producing the patterns of behavior each of them must be documented
as they may all be appropriate. Be sure to include only the relevant
relationships so the model doesn't become overly complicated.
Also note that once the underlying structure is developed is may
become apparent that additional data should be collected to complete
the historical patterns of behavior.
For information on developing the structure "Systems"
, "Introduction to Systems Thinking",
and "Victims of the System or
Systems of the Victim", may be of assistance.
Simulate the Underlying Structure
As far as I can tell the only way to ensure that the structure
developed adequately describes the situation is to simulate it.
The problem with systems that contain more than a couple elements
is that the behavior of resources which accumulate or decline
over time is often beyond our ability to intuit. The intent of
simulation is to verify that the structure developed actually
produces the behavior over time trends that were produced from
the historical data. If it does then there is value in the structure
developed. If the simulation doesn't produce the historical patterns
of behavior it is most likely that there is a problem with the
assumptions embedded in the structure or the structure itself.
My personal preference is never to use a tool more complex
that then situation dictates. As such, the choice of a simulation
tool should be guided by the complexity of the structure to be
simulated. My current order of choice is:
- Vensim PLE - Because it's uncomplicated and the price is
- myStrategy - Because it's also uncomplicated and the price
- ithink - Because it's very capable and more comprehensive
than the previous two.
- Vensim - Because it's extremely powerful though quite usable.
- Extend - When I need to do a discrete simulation or a substantial
amount of abstraction.
The documentation provided with each of these software packages
is quite simply marvelous.
If the initial structure was developed using systems thinking
diagrams then "Translating Systems
Thinking Diagrams to Stock & Flow Diagrams" might
be of use in developing the version of the structure to be simulated.
Identify the Leverage Points
Leverage points are those influences within a system where
small changes can effect a substantial change in the system itself.
At times the leverage points may be obvious, though at times they
only become apparent though sensitivity analysis. Sensitivity
analysis being a process where specific changes are made to certain
influences within the model with all other components held constant
to determine the impact on other elements of the structure. It
is this study of the system that promotes the development of our
understanding which is so critical to the following steps.
Develop an Alternate Structure
If I desire the patterns of behavior to be different than they
are then I have to alter the structure such that it will produce
the desired patterns of behavior in the future. What is most appropriate
is to look for are the leverage points within the structure where
the least amount of effort will produce the greatest desired result.
If the current underlying structure happens to be one of the
well defined systems archetypes then the leverage points are already
defined and there are well defined strategies for dealing with
each of them, which can save you the effort of attempting to develop
a strategy. The strategies for dealing with defined archetypes
may be found in "theWay of
Simulate the Alternate Structure
Once the alternative structure is developed it must be simulated
to determine if it will in fact produce the desired behaviors
over time. The simulation also provides an identification of all
the touch points that should be monitored over time to ensure
the system is on track to produce the desired results.
Develop an Adoption Approach
The next step is to develop a plan for the transition from
the current structure to the new structure. This is essentially
a project management task, though my preference is to perform
the transition in the area(s) that will provide the greatest benefits
most quickly. This will tend to encourage and reassure those involved
that the transition is going to produce the desired result. Note
that the alternate structure actually identifies the appropriate
points to monitor during the transition to ensure that the transition
is on plan.
Systems thinking is a powerful approach for understanding the
nature of why situations are the way they are, and how to go about
improving results. Systems thinking is not an easy approach for
it requires a substantial investment of effort, and thought, though
the results can be more than worth the investment.
theWay of Systems
- Beer, S. (1975). A Platform for Change. New York: John Wiley
& Sons Ltd.
- Clemson, B. (1991). Cybernetics: A New Management Tool. Philadelphia:
Gordon and Breach.
- Davidson, M. (1996). The Transformation of Management. Boston.
- Extend. Imagine
- Goodman, M. & Karash, R. & Lannon, C. & O'Reilly,
K. W., & Seville, D. (1997). Designing a Systems Thinking
Intervention. Waltham, MA. Pegasus Communications, Inc.
- ithink. isee Systems
(Previously High Performance Systems).
- myStragey. Strategy
- O'Connor, J. (1997). The Art of Systems Thinking: Essential
Skills for Creativity and Problem Solving. London: Thorsons,
An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
- Richmond, B. (2001). An Introduction to Systems Thinking.
Hanover, NH. High Performance Systems.
- Senge, P. (1990). The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice
of The Learning Organization. New York: Doubleday Currency.
- Vensim PLE & Vensim.
- Warren, K. (2002). Competitive Strategy Dynamics. West Sussex,
England. John Wiley & Sons.
Copyright © 2004 Gene Bellinger