Reality is systemic, complex and deeply interconnected. Systems are dense webs of relationship. Addressing any situation wisely requires understanding and tapping relevant participants and connections. Systems thinking can be cybernetic, ecological, social, physical, shamanic, cultural and more. So use it to help people take into account relevant fields of relationship.
Related: 17 Deep Time Stewardship, 37 Multi-Modal Intelligence, 40 Nature First, 52 Rich Feedback Dynamics, 59 Synergy Between Part and Whole, 68 Whole System in the Conversation, 69 Wise Use of Uncertainty
Going deeper …
This is an edited version of the video on this page.
The term “systems thinking” is used here to refer to all the kinds of thinking we can do that take seriously the interconnectedness of the world and what that means for our activities.
If we want to have wise solutions, we need to realize that whatever situation we are trying to address is itself a system. There are lots of things involved within it that are interacting to generate the situation.
The idea of one linear cause is an illusion and gets us into trouble. Using linear cause thinking, we come up with a linear solution. We try our linear solution out in the nonlinear real world and suddenly we discover there are “side effects”. Actually, there is no such thing as a side effect, there are only effects. “Side effects” are things that were on the side of this linear cause we thought we’d identified. So becoming sensitive to the multitude of causes and effects, relationships and dynamics going on is part of achieving wise solutions.
The other part is knowing that whatever situation we are working with exists in a context of a larger world to which it is connected. Of course, ultimately we cannot track every single connection and influence in any given situation. We have to have some sense of relevance. But with systems thinking our sense of relevance gets greatly expanded. Systems thinking does not stop quickly at the most obvious levels of cause and effect.
The more we can take into account, the less things will come up that surprise us. So sensing into the system, addressing any situation wisely, requires understanding and tapping relevant participants, dynamics and connections: So we find ourselves asking questions like “Who else is involved? Who else should be part of the conversation about this? What are the connections that people involved here have?”
Very often systems thinking will be involved not only in understanding the problem but in designing solutions and also in getting implementation planned out and done. People may have connections you haven’t thought of which are problematic or potentially useful. For example, someone who agrees to help out solving this problem may be connected to other people who are going to prevent him or her from doing that. So you need to try taking things like that into account. The sense of who is involved and how are they connected is a big chunk of what systems thinking is about.
I come to this with a much broader sense of what systems thinking is than a lot of people do. But I think most of us would agree that the main form of systems thinking – the one that is broadly recognized – is cybernetics. Cybernetics is largely about understanding feedback loops. The feedback loops that balance things out are usually called negative feedback loops. Calling them “negative” does not mean they are “bad”. They are just negative in terms of balancing things out, of moderating factors that are too much or too little.
A thermostat is a standard example of that dynamic. If a room or machine gets too hot, the thermostat cools things down. And if it is too cool, the thermostat heats things up.
In contrast, so-called “positive” or “magnifying” feedback loops make things more extreme. They aren’t “positive” because they are good. They are “positive” because they make things “more”, more extreme. They magnify certain trends that are happening.