What’s Systems Thinking and Where Can I Get Some?

Yes, it is rocket science but it’s also something you learned in kindergarten called “connect the dots.” Systems thinking is the ability to understand connections and to recognize that much of what occurs around us every day is the result of linked systems that influence each other, often in subtle ways.

An event happens—for example, a key employee quits. A non-systems thinker would say “too bad—these things happen.” A systems thinker would ask: “Has this been happening more or less frequently? Under what conditions? Can we identify what may be contributing to this? Are we creating this problem for ourselves by how we’re operating?”

Designers, researchers, and engineers are often natural-born systems thinkers, but anyone can develop the skill with practice. Here are four quick tricks to try:

Take turns. Systems thinking skills benefit from contextual knowledge and hands-on experience. You’ll understand a system better if you interact with it directly. Try changing jobs with someone at work for a day, and then compare notes on what could be improved. 

Change places. You can change your perspective on anything you’re studying and see it in a different way. If you’re reading a report online, print it out. If you’re conducting a meeting in a conference room, move it outside. If you’re taking a client out to lunch, change the venue to a museum. A new perspective often reveals hidden parts of a system. A common trick to change perspective on a company is to pretend you’ve been hired as its new leader. What changes would you make?

Borrow stuff. Don’t be shy when it comes to borrowing from others—systems often share common behaviors. Start collecting patterns and models of behavior. These can help you understand and address new problems quickly. For example, if you have a method of increasing trust in a group, you can extend that model online to a much larger audience. If you have a trick for breaking the ice at a party, you might be able to apply that to new employee orientations.

Draw lines. Learn to diagram and use this skill to increase your understanding of system interactions. Diagrams can deconstruct everything from sentences to nuclear power plants. An easy first step is to learn to make schematic drawings with lines, arrows, circles, and squares.

Keep it simple. Doug Sundheim describes a clever framework to reduce a company’s essence down to a few words. Ask your management, “If a journalist observed our organization for a few months, what headline would she write?” Starting with the simplest, most fundamental explanation makes it much easier to “connect the dots” from a problem to its solution.