An Introduction to Systems Thinking

By Justin Wayne Carter

The dark sky gives way to a red streak across the horizon.  The light stretches across the field as the birds begin to sing.  Flowers in the garden begin to lift up to embrace the light from the sun.  A hummingbird leaves its nest to collect the pollen from the blooming flowers.  At first glance, each event is different from the other with little relation.  A closer look shows that each event is directly influenced by the other.  The system of the rising sun only becomes evident when looked at as a whole.  By looking at each part individually, you do not see the larger system at work. 

            Three pillars of study have greatly influenced research on organizational behavior.  Soft sciences have provided important information about human behavior. Hard sciences have provided theoretical and experimental mythologies, and economics has served as the definitive predictor of organizational behavior.  System theory was proposed in the 1940's by the biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1976). Bertalanffy was reacting against reductionism and attempting to revive the unity of science. He emphasized that real systems are open to, and interact with, their environments and that they can acquire qualitatively new properties through emergence, resulting in continual evolution.  Peter Senge (1990) shined light onto the importance of systems in the business world with his pyramid of systems thinking that includes practices, principles, and essences. 

            An important part of a systems approach involves seeking, identifying, and appreciating the roles, timing, and importance of balancing forces (Ackoff, 1974).  As a rule, a systems approach calls for understanding and focusing on balancing forces and finding methods to weaken them.  Handy (1994) extends this analysis by depicting the life cycles of public and private sector organizations and programs using the Sigmoid rotated ninety degree curve.  It depicts the following stages of a standard organization or program cycle: initiation, growth reinforced and balanced maturity, and then decline reinforced or acceleration.  For Handy, the systems approach is to initiate change during the growth stage just as balancing forces begin to impact on the system. 

All systems tend to be characterized by reinforcing and balancing processes (Senge, 1994).  In many systems both growth and contraction accelerate. This is true of systems as a whole and of parts.  Forces and growths of contraction seem, at times, to feed upon themselves (Senge, 1992).  Examples are found in business cycles, compounding of interest, house and land market price movements, stock market movements, and organizational and individual success or failure. 

            Systems thinking involves seeing not just single elements or parts of a process but the whole of the elements and the interrelationships among elements.  A systems approach considers direct and indirect effects of change in any element within a system or external to a system that has the potential to affect any element or process within the system (Bertalanffy, 1976).  According to Senge (1994), systems thinking requires the user to see four simultaneously operating levels within a system.  These levels include events, patterns, systems, and mental models.  Events are directly observable actions and behaviors.  Patterns emerge as actions and behaviors are repeated over time.  Systemic structures show the relationship between the patterns.  Mental models are the deep seated beliefs and values that hold the systemic structures in place.  Perhaps the most challenging of all the disciplines outlined by Peter Senge, systems thinking, is worth the effort to understand.  Because language is linear and sequential, the tendency is to think simplistically.  Systems thinking emphasizes circles and not lines. This helps emphasize the systematic patterns at work, and breaks away from the “A” equals “B” philosophy of the past.  Systems thinking is useful because among other things, it can be diagramed into structural archetypes.    

System archetypes (pronounced ar*che*types) describe common patterns of behavior in organizations.  According to Senge (1990) archetypes are nature’s templates–structure and patterns that control events in our personal and work lives. Leaders have the ability to use these archetypes as highly effective tools for gaining insight into patterns of behavior (Ackoff, 1974). In order for leaders to be able to develop a learning organization, they must have a fundamental understanding of behavior.  Diagnostically, archetypes help leaders recognize patterns of behavior that are already present in their organization, providing a way of predicting the future behavior of the organization (Senge, 1990).  These archetypes are designed as a way to graph the system in order to view the pattern effectively. 

The most powerful ideas in history go back to system archetypes.  Although the majority of focus on archetypes is based on religion, the central concepts of science, philosophy and ethics are no exception to this rule (Jung, 1968).  Physicist Wolfgang Pauli believed that the psychologist and the physicist are on the same quest and that archetypes are fundamental to understanding the laws of nature (Stevens, 1982).

            By understanding how systems thinking opens up the mind to the big picture and how archetypes graph out the patterns of the system, a better understanding of systems as a whole should be present.  Systems are present in everything.  From organizational behavior to a sunrise, systems explain all events and all behaviors.  Systems are even parts of larger systems.  System archetypes represent the behavior of the larger system that’s in place.  Each event creates a system that affects a larger system that affects an even larger system that we call life.

 Editor’s Note:

For an excellent concise introduction to systems thinking and system archetypes, read Introduction to Systems Thinking by Daniel H. Kim, Pegasus Communications, Waltham , MA . The weLEAD book review of this publication can be found at http://www.leadingtoday.org/ under book reviews.

 

References

Ackoff, R.L.  (1974), Redesigning the Future: A Systems Approach to Societal Problems.

  New York :  John Wiley and Sons. 

Bertalanffy, L. (1976), General System Theory.  New York :  George Braziller.

 Handy, C. (1994), The Empty Raincoat. London : Arrow Business Books.

 Jung, C  (1968), The Archetypes and The Collective Unconscious.  Routledge, London .  

Senge, P. (1990), The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning

Organization.  New York :  Doubleday.

Senge, P. (1994), The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook.  New York :  Doubleday .

Senge, P. (1992).  Systems Thinking: A language for learning and acting.  Farmington Mass. :  Innovation Associates.

Stevens, A. (1982), Archetype: A Natural History of the Self, Routledge, London

Van Dujen, J.J. (1983), The Long Wane in Economic Life. London :  George Allen .

About the Author

Justin Carter has a Bachelor's degree in Business Administration with a major in Human Resource Management from the University of North Alabama.  He is currently pursuing a Master of Arts degree in Leadership from Bellevue University.  He is an active member of the Society for Human Resource Managers.  Justin is employed as Training and Documentation Specialist at FPMI Solutions (Federal Personnel Management Institute) (www.fpmi.com).  FPMI Solutions works through the Transportation Security Administration as part of the Homeland Security Project.

Justin joined the student mentoring program of weLeadInLearning  (http://www.weleadinlearning.org/mentoringservice.htm) in September 2003.  This interview article is an outcome of his participation in the mentoring program.

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