Introduction to Systems Thinking Part 3

What is systems thinking?

Now that we got that out of the way, let’s talk about what systems thinking is.

 Systems thinking is an approach that largely uncovers three areas;

  • How the parts of a system interrelate 
  • How systems work throughout different time periods
  • How systems work in the context of larger systems

Systems thinking can be used in various areas, be it environmental, economic, organizational, or political. In this article, we are going to focus on how we can gain clarity of a system in order to use it for social innovation and systems entrepreneurship. In other words, how can we use systems thinking to approach the largest challenges of our societies?

Why systems thinking might be a better approach to how we deal with complex problems

Whether it is international aid or social entrepreneurship, we have been trying to create a positive impact in the world in different forms and methods. From homelessness to climate change, from biodiversity to quality education, governments and civil society work tirelessly every day to move the needle on a certain issue towards a certain outcome. 

And things are getting better in many cases. However, as our understanding of these challenges increase, we start to realize how many challenges of the world are interrelated. This brings us to think about a concept called complexity

So, what do we mean by complex issues? Does that only mean that they are difficult? Is it the same thing as complicated?

Well, not quite.

Let’s talk about the types of problems that we encounter in the impact world. 

“…complex problems are like raising a child. Your experience from your first child could help, but is not a guarantee by any means that the second child will (turn out the same)”

  1. Simple problems: These are problems that could be solved with some sort of protocol or a recipe. For instance, if your car is running empty, you could navigate to a gas station and fill up. It requires a protocol, but the protocol and the outcome of that protocol are predictable. You know that once you fill your car up, it is going to start working again.
  1. Complicated problems: Complicated problems require a bit more expertise to overcome, however, they are still solvable. With the same car, imagine that there is a leak in the fuel line. Maybe you cannot fix it or re-install a new line, but a mechanic, someone who has expertise could figure out where the leak is from, know if it can be fixed or if it needs to be replaced, and also execute the solution. Furthermore, if you wanted to do it yourself, you could learn about how your car works and do it yourself. There is a way to know the solution.
  1. Complex problems: On the other hand, complex problems are those that are based on relationships between different variables of influence. The outcome is reasonably predictable but cannot fully be known.

    I like the example given by Sholom Glouberman and Brenda Zimmerman in this report about how the successful reform of Medicare could happen. They mention that complex problems are like raising a child. Your experience from your first child could help but is not a guarantee by any means that the second child will also be a success. (Whatever that means) Every child is different and no playbook has the exact same outcomes every time that it is implemented. 
  1. Chaotic problems: These are problems that neither be knowable nor be predictable. This might happen when the complex problems are left unattended for a critical period of time.
Simple problemsSolution can be known, and the outcome is predictable
Complicated problemsThe solution is harder to understand but it is still knowable
Complex problemsThe solution cannot fully be known, but moderately predictable
Chaotic problemsSolution cannot be known, and it is not predictable 

It is important to understand what kind of challenges you are dealing with before you choose your approach. In this article when we talk about using systems thinking for these challenges, we are talking about using it for complex problems.

Complexity and complex problems

So, what does this mean in our case? How does it apply to our approach to impact? What do we have to keep in mind? There are a couple of answers:

  1. Complex problems do not have a universal approach. There is no magic solution that works every time. The challenges with the education system here might be very different from the challenges in another country. Even in the same country, there is not one single way that would work to have that impact on the system.
  1. Complex problems cannot be solved by a single entity. The complexity of the problem implies that it affects many stakeholders, in many sectors, in many places. Systems thinking approach encourages all relevant stakeholders to work together, as no single entity has the answers. This rule applies regardless of how much power or resources you have, including governments.
  1. Measuring your impact is difficult. When dealing with complex problems, it is difficult to see the relation of causation between reasons, and it is often difficult to measure the change and the success.

Tomorrow, we will talk about a real-life example. So, don’t forget to have a look at your inbox.

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