Systems thinking: what it is, its characteristics and how it works

One of the most common procedures when analyzing a problem is to limit yourself to evaluating the parts or elements that compose it, thinking that if you analyze the parts of it in depth, you will be able to understand , as if by magic, the whole thing.

However, the truth is that this kind of thinking is ineffective. The whole is always more than the sum of the parts, with properties that emerge from the interaction of these elements, which is difficult to observe if one simply looks at the parts or elements of the system evaluated separately.

Systems thinking assesses the whole problem, values ​​each part of the system but tries to go deeper, seeing their interactions and how they influence each other. Let’s take a closer look at what it is.

    What is Systems Thinking?

    Systems thinking is the ability to solve problems within a complex system, adopting a perspective that takes into account the whole system and analyze the interaction of its parts. It is based on the multidisciplinary study of systems, understood as entities made up of interrelated and interdependent parts, which together create something different from the simple sum of their parts.

    This type of thinking differs from more traditional thinking because it does not try to isolate each variable of a situation or phenomenon and study it separately. Instead, try to understand what you want to study as a whole, the parts of which influence each other, and therefore try to understand it as a whole.

    Introducing systems thinking into our lives can be very beneficial in our personal and professional lives, helping us to improve the productivity of workgroups, companies and projects. Today, it is used both in science and in other applied fields, especially in personal development and business management.

      What aspects does systems thinking analyze?

      Systems thinking takes into account different elements or characteristic aspects of systems, which are mainly the following.

      1. Interconnections

      A key aspect of systems thinking is the ability to establish interconnections between the parts of the problem or phenomenon to be analyzed. This type of thinking requires a shift in perspective and moving from linear to circular thinking, where each element is assumed to be interconnected with the others.

        2. Change

        Thinking systemically requires the ability to sense change because, after all, systems are dynamic, not static. There is always a flow of movement between its elements.

        3. Feedback

        Since all parts of a system are interconnected, systems thinking requires observing the balancing or reinforcing effects that each of them generates. This involves being aware of the feedback that is given within the systemknowing how to identify flows and reactions within it.

          Key Features of Systems Thinking

          Below we will examine the main characteristics of systems thinking.

          1. Based on systems theory

          Systems theory is the interdisciplinary study of entities composed of different interconnected parts. Each of these entities is called a “system” and is described in terms of its boundaries, purpose, or mode of operation. In turn, these systems are made up of more basic elements that interact with each other.

          According to systems theory, each of these entities is greater than the mere sum of its parts, based on ideas such as synergy or emergent behavior. Thus, this school of thought maintains that it is impossible to understand the functioning of a system without understanding what and how its components are, and especially how they relate to each other.

          The overall goal of systems thinking is discover what are the limits, dynamics, conditions, purpose and relationships that exist within each of these systems.

            2. It goes from the concrete to the more general

            In systems thinking, the first thing to do is to look at the objective data available at a given time, such as observable results or the situation from which it is based. The next step is to try to find the underlying causes and extrapolate them to other areas. It goes from the most concrete to go, as it goes, to the most general.

            This way of thinking is, as a rule, very different from that which we usually use. What we usually do when faced with a specific problem is to look for the causes in the recent past and in the nearest situations. In trying to solve it, we focus on solutions that have good short-term results, without worrying about what might happen in the distant future.

            This is not the case with systems thinking. With him it is a question of finding all the causes of a situation and all the elements which could have influenced it, regardless of their distance in time and space. By offering solutions to a problem, its effectiveness is revamped both in the short and long term, anticipating possible risks and adverse effects that may occur in the distant future.

            3. It helps to better understand the causes of the situation under study

            The main advantage of systems thinking is that by applying it, it helps to understand the causes that led to a given situation. In addition, it helps us to understand all the elements that make this situation persist.

            When you fully understand the causes of a situation and its components, it is easier to develop an effective solution in the short and long term. So, although difficult to apply, systems thinking offers us great advantages in the areas where it is applied.

              Principles of Systems Thinking

              The four fundamental principles when it comes to applying systems thinking are discussed below.

              1. Acquisition of a global vision

              The first step in applying systems thinking to any given situation is to put it into perspective. It is necessary to acquire a global vision of the problem, which is often difficult because the most immediate consequences of the situation prevent us from seeing the whole.

              Before starting the analysis of the situation, you have to ask yourself what you might forget at first glance. In this way, we can acquire a new vision of the problem, which will allow us to analyze it more effectively.

              2. Identification of systems and their relationships

              Once we have managed to detach ourselves from the most immediate consequences of the situation discussed, here is what follows find all the systems that are part of the problem to be analyzed. Here we have to include everything including human systems (e.g. work groups, family relationships) and inanimate or structural elements (e.g. tools, environment, geographic organization…) or even intangibles (e.g. belief system).

              For example, in a labor problem, one of the systems involved is the firm and the groups of workers who work there. However, other aspects such as the beliefs of these people, the computer system used in the organization or the economic situation of the company should not be overlooked.

              3. Recognition of the elements that compose them

              The next step can be understood as the same as the previous one, but this time we will try to detect what are the elements that make up the systems. The aim here is to identify the elements that make up each of the systems and how these same elements influence each other.

              4. Approach to possible solutions

              Finally, once the systems and elements that make up the problem to be analyzed have been identified, it is time to suggest possible solutions to this one. Thanks to the previous steps, it is easier to find a satisfactory solution for all parties.

              It should be mentioned that at this point we should not adopt the first idea that appears after the analysis. Before applying a solution, it is necessary to identify the possible short-term and long-term effects of each of the proposed alternatives. This way, you can choose the one that benefits everyone the most.

              Bibliographic references

              • Battista, R. (2020). This is why today we must adopt systems thinking.
              • CREDA (2021). Systems thinking.
              • Osorio, Juan. (2008). Introduction to systems thinking. 10.25100 / foot.88.
              • Panetti, R. (2020). Be creative in complex contexts. Methodologies and creativity tools to seize opportunities and generate ideas and bring them to life. Milano: Franco Angeli.
              • Sarmiento, Alexandra. (2020). Perspective on systems thinking. ECONOMIC CUC. 41. 261-266.

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