Introduction To Systems Thinking (For Practical People)
When people hear about systems thinking, they usually listen up. It’s strange, but it seems that people intuitively understand that systems are crucial for living a structured and successful life.
And indeed, the importance of systems thinking is easily explained: Literally everything in your life is a system. Be it your household, your job, your finances or your relationships.
This fact leads to a simple conclusion:
If you improve your system thinking skills, you will be able to improve all areas of your life.
Here are some examples:
- If you improve your investment system, you will save and make money.
- If you improve your household system, your house will be cleaner and you will save time doing it.
- If you improve the systems at your job, you will get more done in less time.
But not only that – the vision of living a systems-based life sounds exciting. Imagine a life where all of your life areas sorted out. Everything is optimized, structured and automated. With having all these systems in place, you will gain more time, money and energy. Which means more time for hobbies, passion, and creativity.
Sounds amazing, doesn’t it?
The Harsh Truth About Systems Thinking
The promise of systems thinking may sound great. However, learning systems thinking is a struggle.
But why is that?
Most systems thinking advice on the internet is very academic. When you start to research this topic online, you will find complex concepts including feedback loop diagrams, dynamic simulations or computer-based modeling tools.
While this is all nice and good, you won’t be able to put this knowledge directly into action. Or put differently, you won’t improve your life with this kind of theoretical advice.
Don’t get me wrong, all of these concepts have their rights to exist. But with all of this theory, it’s hard to understand the practical value of systems thinking.
Actionable, easy-applicable advice is missing. So obviously, there is a large gap between theory and practice.
So, how does a normal human implement systems thinking in its life?
Why You Need Practical Systems Thinking
To end this confusion, I came up with my own term. I call it Practical Systems Thinking.
Practical systems thinking has two primary goals:
- Improve the systems in your life to get more done using less of your resources (time, money, energy)
- Understand systems on a deeper level to gain more insights and shape your future.
Practical systems thinking is heavily based on the Pareto principle, which defines that 20% of your effort leads to 80% of your results.
The same is true for systems thinking. 20% (actually much less) of the systems thinking knowledge enables you to be a better systems thinker than 80% of the population.
However, this principle only works if you know to navigate through the endless systems thinking resources on the internet. You have to know which resources are important and in which order they have to be consumed. Otherwise, all these ideas, concepts and examples about systems thinking won’t make sense to you. You will always wonder how these things fit together into a bigger picture.
About This Web Guide
I created this web guide to teach practical systems thinking. It’s based on simple a process which guides you through the best systems thinking resources on the web. It shows you all the necessary steps to learn practical systems thinking. Every concept has a practical reference to your life. You will be able to see, analyze, design and optimize systems for you and the people around you.
Here’s a navigation of this web guide:
- Systems Thinking Foundation
- Systems Thinking Concepts
- Applying Systems Thinking
1. Systems Thinking Foundation
Before we go any further, let’s define the term system. In our context, two definitions will be helpful:
„A set of detailed methods, procedures and routines created to carry out a specific activity, perform a duty, or solve a problem.“ 1
The second definition deals with the question “What needs to be done to achieve a goal?”. It focuses on the result of a system by following a repeatable process.
The second important definition of the term system is this:
„An organized, purposeful structure that consists of interrelated and interdependent elements. These elements continually influence one another (directly or indirectly) to maintain their activity and the existence of the system, in order to achieve the goal of the system“ 2
This definition is more abstract than the previous one. It focuses on the parts of a system and hence on its structure. In reality, these parts could be humans, machines, or organizations.
These two definitions should be enough to start with this systems thinking guide. But if you want to dive a little deeper into systems theory, have a look at this short video about complex systems. It contains a detailed description of the term system and describes the characteristics of complex systems.
Systems thinking has many definitions. A good one for practical systems thinking is this one:
Systems thinking is the ability to identify, model, create and improve systems to make your life and other people’s lives better
A more detailed explanation by the systems thinking legend Peter Senge can be found in this 2-minute video. If you want to understand systems thinking with the aid of an example (improvement of the health care system), then check out this 5-minute video.
If you want to understand on a deeper level why systems thinking is so powerful, look at these web resources:
Simplify Your Life With Systems (Blog post, Practice)
See The Big Picture With Systems Thinking (Blog post, Theory)
Broaden Your Thinking With Systems Thinking (Blog post, Theory)
- Use Systems Thinking To Be More Innovative (Blog post)
- Solve Complex Problems With Systems Thinking (Video, Practice/Theory)
Let me tell you a secret about systems thinking: Identifying systems is already half the battle. Once you are able to see the system, you can improve it. It’s easy as that. This skill is also called a system’s mindset.
But how do you get it? I found two videos to be really helpful.
The first video is by Leo Gura in which he looks at systems thinking from a philosophical perspective. He dives deep into systems thinking principles and how you can use them to improve your understanding of life. He also talks about the characteristics of systems thinkers and why systems thinking is the highest form of self-actualization. This video is definitely worth checking out:
Another great video to get a system’s mindset is by Sam Ovens. He takes a more practical approach than Leo Gura and breaks down why success in life and business depends hugely on your systems thinking abilities. Among other things, Sam teaches you how to view everything in life and business a system, how systems thinking works and shows real-life examples. Don’t miss this video:
2. Systems Thinking Concepts
If you want to put systems thinking into practice, you first need to build a mental toolbox of systems thinking models. In other words, you have to learn some theory first.
In this way, you have a tool belt of systems thinking concepts which can be applied successively when being faced with a complex problem.
The motto of this section is simple: The more you read, the better.
The following concepts have no direct logical dependencies, meaning that you can learn them in any order you like.
„As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.” – Harrington Emerson
Systems thinking is based on a core set of principles. Once you understand these principles, systems thinking will be far easier to grasp. You will get a better “feel” for systems and you will build a deeper understanding which helps you to learn new systems thinking concepts quicker.
A great blog post about systems thinking principles is written by Leyla Acaroglu. She breaks down the 6 most important systems thinking concepts with epic inf graphics. This blog post is a must-read: The 6 Fundamental Concepts of Systems Thinking
Two other interesting articles about systems thinking principles are „10 Useful Ideas On Systems Thinking” and „15 Systems Thinking Guidelines To Live In A World Of Uncertainty”.
If you want to see systems thinking principles in action, check out this short video. It’s an amazing illustration of complex systems thinking topics.
Before a system can be improved or analyzed in any way, it first has to be understood. Or more precisely, you have to conceptualize its functioning and its environment. This skill is called systems mapping. It is the process of looking at real-world systems and transforming it into a simpler model:
Any systems mapping process includes these three fundamental system components:
- Parts – The building blocks of a system, i.e. people, assets, organizations, machines.
- Flow – describes the interaction between parts, i.e. information, communication or material flows.
- Environment – Everything beyond the system boundaries.
To explain these three components, let’s try to create a very basic system on how to invest your monthly salary. The goal of this system is managing your finances and building long-term wealth.
First, let’s sketch the boundaries between our investment system and its environment in which it operates:
Any investment system exists within the global economy, and hence, largely depends on it. The global economy consists of endless actors like countries, companies or finance experts as well as current trends (i.e. digitalization) and conflicts (USA-China economy war) which are created by these actors.
Once we understand the boundaries of our system, we look can look into the system and identify its most important parts:
- Salary (Your monthly income)
- Saving Process (The activity of putting money aside)
- Spending Process (The activity of spending your money)
- Basic Investment Strategy (The way you are investing your money)
- Deposits (The places where money is stored)
Lastly, you must understand the way the parts of the system interact with each other. This could look like this:
Rectangles represent the parts of the system and the flow is visualized by the arrows between parts. In the case of this example, flow means the flow of money.
To turn to the system itself: Your monthly salary, which initially is stored in your main deposit, flows into three containers:
- 1) Your fixed costs (rent, food, and insurance)
- 2) Fun costs deposit(hobbies, travel, and luxury)
- 3) Investment Process (The way you invest your money)
The investment process is based on an investment strategy, which currently consists of three different investment approaches: stocks, real estate, and bitcoins.
It should be also noted that the strategy gets constantly refined based on the current global economy (see the blue two-sided error). For example, if there’s a global recession, you act more risk-inverse and start to invest in bonds instead of risky stocks. This shows that a good system has to be in constant exchange with its environment to achieve improvement.
Of course, this systems mapping process has been highly simplified. But it gives you a glimpse of breaking down a system to get the big picture. Once this is done, you can refine your system components or even create sub-systems. Besides that, you can to start thinking about automating your system with technology (i.e. financing apps).
To some people, the skill of systems mapping comes naturally. Especially if you are working as a software engineer or UX Designer, sketching diagrams, structures and processes will be pretty easy for you.
But even if that’s not the case, don’t get discouraged. There are no special rules on how to do systems mapping. As long as you stick to the three components (environment, flow, and parts), you are good to go. It builds a solid foundation on which you can apply the next concepts of this web guide.
In case you want to dive deeper systems mapping methods and examples, I recommend these three web resources:
- Tools for Systems Thinkers: Great systems mapping method created by Leyla Acaroglu
- Systems Map: video showing an interesting example of an intuitive systems mapping process
- Systems Mapping: interesting video to learn the basics of systems mapping
„You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” – James Clear
Humans are obsessed with their goals. But when it comes to the implementation of our goals, we get overwhelmed. Why is that?
People overestimate the importance of goals and underestimate the power of systems. Ever heard of New Year’s resolutions?
Put simply, if you want to achieve a goal, you better have a system in place. Otherwise, your pursuit will produce random and chaotic results. You need the consistency, automation, and focus of systems.
In his blog post „Systems Over Goals”, James Clear describes the shortcomings of goals. He argues that systems are the most important cornerstone of success.
However, systems are no end in itself. Systems are built to achieve goals. Nat Eliason reminds us about this fact in his blog post „Systems Without Goals Is A Path To Mediocrity”.
So in essence, you need both, systems and goals. But how can they be aligned with each other?
A solution is presented by Flavio Rump in his Medium article „Systems Versus Goals”. He breaks down an 8-step process to translate your life or business goal into an applicable system. Two powerful concepts he mentions are„social contracts” and „measurability”.
„It’s inevitable your environment will influence what you do.” – Duncan Sheik
Let’s perform a short thought experiment: Imagine you are in the process of starting a new business. You have supportive investors, an amazing product and a perfect founder-team. Sounds great, right? And now let’s add just a last small detail: Your business operates within a sluggish and unprofitable market. This fact changes everything: Sales will be much harder because customers won’t have the money and mindset to invest in your new product, even if it’s useful.
The example above shows how a system is significantly influenced by its environment. In other words, a system won’t produce good desired results if its environment doesn’t have a positive influence.
Two helpful blog posts highlighting the power of the environment are „How To Improve Your Health And Productivity Without Thinking“ and „Motivation Isn’t Enough. Environment Literally Shapes Your Life“. Both posts show practical examples and tips which can help you in your day to day life.
Here’s another small example: Suppose you are building a system for your finances. You want to save and invest your money. If you start investing without considering the environment (global economy), there’s a big chance for failure. Because let’s suppose we are in the midst of a recession, and you are investing in high-risk technology startups. There won’t be any money to finance the growth of these startups.
But how do you use the power of the environment to improve your system?
Next time you create or improve a system, take a step back. Look at the environment surrounding your system. Where are the interfaces between your system and its environment in terms of structure, process, and communication?
It can be a challenge to differentiate between a system and its environment. Where to draw the line? There’s an easy guideline to solve that problem: A system can be controlled, an environment can only be influenced. So if you are the CEO of a company, your company is the system. The market (competitor, partners, customers) is your environment because it can only be influenced.
Once you understand how the environment affects your system, it’s time to act. There are basically three ways to do it:
- Adapt – Create a symbiosis between your system and its environment.
- Protect – When we talk about protection, we have to talk about Donald Trump (building a wall & US-China Trade War)
- Change – It’s also possible to change your environment completely. Two good examples are the companies are Yelp and Slack. Both companies became successful by changing their market.
„It is better to take many small steps in the right direction than to make a great leap forward only to stumble backward” – Louis Sachar
Every beginning is difficult. We all know that. From a system’s perspective, this phenomenon is summarized by Gall’s Law.
„A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. The inverse proposition also appears to be true: A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system.” – John Gall
Gall’s law has a wide range of applications, whether we talk about human evolution, business or learning a new skill.
Another great example of Gall’s Law is described by Justin Jackson in his blog bost „I wasted 4 years of my life doing this”. He explains how he built his business by starting small by applying Gall’s law and Just in Time Learning.
„Having no problems is the biggest problem of all” – Taiichi Ohno
A key idea of systems improvement is maximizing throughput. Throughput is defined as the „productivity of a … system over a unit period, expressed in a figure-of-merit or a term meaningful in the given context, such as output per hour, cash turnover, number of orders shipped.“ 3
For different systems, this could mean different things:
- If you are a writer, this could be the amount of word you write within an hour.
- If you are a car salesman, this could be your sales can within a day.
- If you are a manufacturer, it could the number of units you produce within a month.
However, the biggest enemy of improving throughput is called bottleneck or constraint:
„A bottleneck is a hindrance to productivity, efficiency and speed. The term is an analogy to the shape of a bottle that that narrows at the neck. A bottleneck is typically a component of a process that is slower than anything than everything that depends on it.” 4
One good example is a company with an amazing product and a great company culture, but with a slow and inefficient sales process. In this case, the sales department is the bottleneck because it affects the success of the whole organization in a negative way.
The sales example illustrates how a bottleneck can take down your whole system, even if the rest of the system works perfectly. Thus, it’s important to provide downside protection by eliminating bottlenecks before making radical changes within a system.
In case of simple systems, identifying a bottleneck is straightforward because people intuitively know what brings them down:
- In your social circle, it could be a toxic friend.
- In your job, it could an inefficient process.
- If you try to get fit, it’s often nutrition.
But once a system gets too complex, you have to take a more methodical approach. I found two guides to be very helpful to achieve this. Both are web resources based on the “Theory Of constraints“ method by Eliyahu Goldratt:
- Everything You Need To Know About Theory Of Constraints (Web Guide)
- Addressing Bottlenecks with Theory of Constraints (Podcast)
„I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eights of it underwater for every part that shows.” – Ernest Hemingway
When it comes down to solving deep-rooted problems, human beings quickly get overwhelmed. We tend to go for the quick fix and neglect the deeper causes of problems.
However, real change only can happen when problems are tackled at source.
A great mental model to achieve this kind of thinking is the iceberg model. It acknowledges the fact that deep-rooted problems are invisible to the human eye. Like an iceberg, where only approximately 10% of its mass is visible and the rest is under-water:
The iceberg model consists of 4 layers:
- Layer 1 – Events: Observable happenings and actions that happen in day-to-day life.
- Layer 2 – Patterns: Patterns are formed by events happening over time in the form of trends or changes.
- Layer 3 – Systems: The deep underlying structures which create patterns and events on an ongoing basis.
- Layer 4 – Mental Models: The beliefs, norms, assumptions, and dreams that drive human behavior.
A great visual explanation of the iceberg model can be found in this 7-minute video:
To illustrate the 4 layer iceberg model, we will try to analyze the problem of „global environment change“:
We all experience the events of global environmental change: A hot day, sunburn, tornados or fires.
If we look at these events over time, we notice patterns like the melting of glaciers, water pollution, the temperature increase in the last 50 years or an increase of environmental catastrophes.
If we assume that human beings are responsible for global climate change, some of the associated systems are CO2 production, international air-transport, inefficient recycling systems and unhealthy economic growth (capitalism).
In the end, all of these events, patterns, and systems have been created by human beings. The underlying mental model is the human „growth-mindset“. However, this mindset also can lead to short-term thinking, greed and ignorance causing thoughts like „The more the better“, „I’m not responsible for the environment“ or „the next generation will fix environmental problems“.
Next time you are trying to solve a problem systematically, think of the iceberg model. Start to observe the events, and dive deeper into the problem until you reach the mental models layer.
When it comes to the solution of your complex problem, the following rule applies:
The deeper the layer your solution aims at, the higher the leverage of the solution.
Think of the global issue of „environment change“. As long as we keep fighting against the symptoms (events) like applying sun lotion or inventing tornado detection systems, we will create an artificial complexity which will rush us into a disaster.
Instead, we have to look below the surface and redesign our most important systems and mental models to achieve long-term success.
„Give me a place to stand and with a lever I will move the world“ – Archimedes
As a child, most of us learned about the lever concept. In a nutshell, „a lever amplifies an input force to provide a greater output force, which is said to provide leverage.“ 5 The best way to explain leverage is this:
Put simply, good leverage multiplies your initial effort and leads to a far better result.
The power of leverage doesn’t only apply to physics, but to every aspect of your life. Here are some examples of good leverage:
- Making 1000$ from 100$.
- Loosing 30 kilos in 6 months by working out twice a week.
- Building a profitable business by investing 1 hour a day.
When it comes to systems thinking, the lever effect is described with the term leverage point:
“Leverage points are places within a complex system where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything” 6
A great way to understand leverage points is to think about the domino-effect. The fall of one single domino brick leads to a chain-reaction and eventually triggers a change in the whole system.
But how can such high leverage points be found?
Basically, a notable change within a system occurs when a leverage point targets the root cause of a problem. This is only achievable by ignoring symptomatic solutions and short-term thinking.
A great example of a symptomatic solution can be found in our global financial system. When our global economy slows down, central banks tend to lower interest rates to fuel growth and wealth. However, this approach only works short-term and will eventually lead to inflation and devaluation.
High leverage points can be identified by analyzing deep-rooted structures of problems. This isn’t always fun. In fact, people avoid this like the plague but wonder why they always get the same results.
As a rule of thumb: the deeper the leverage point within the iceberg model, the better the leverage point. The relation between leverage points and the iceberg-model can be found in this video:
Leverage points can be divided into different subtypes. Donella Meadows, a systems thinking legend, extracted 12 different types of leverage points, ordered by their effectiveness. An explanation of these 12 types can also be found in this Medium post.
A final note: Bottlenecks and leverage points seem to be very similar. However, bottlenecks focus on protecting the downside by removing the biggest constraint, while leverage points are about positive change and creating „limitless“ opportunity.
Imagine this scenario: You are the CEO of a company, facing daily problems like these:
- How to maximize innovation?
- How to reduce the stress of employees?
- How to improve collaboration between sales- and development-team?
None of the problems above have an easy solution. But why exactly is that?
All of these questions can’t be analyzed in isolation and solved by following a linear step-by-step process. Rather, these are all interconnected problems which are based on ongoing circular interactions and feedback mechanisms. In other words, we are talking about dynamic, and not linear problems.
To explain this, let’s take a short look at the question “How to maximize innovation within a company?”.
Innovation certainly needs two things: Employees who have 1) motivation and 2) skills. Motivation creates the willingness to change, while skills are needed to put things into practice (e.g. using the newest technology).
However, pursuing both of these two things at the same time can lead to a problem: If you force your employees to improve their skills too much (e.g. further education), they will burn out and eventually lose their motivation. So these two factors have to be balanced out.
To achieve a satisfying solution for a dynamic problem like this, circular thinking is needed.
However, circular thinking doesn’t come naturally to human beings. On the contrary, since childhood, we have been taught to think in a linear way.
Basically, linear thinking deals with one single question: How do I get from point A to B as quickly and efficiently as possible?
How do I get rich? How to lose 40 pounds? How to make more friends?
Don’t get me wrong, linear thinking is absolutely necessary to get things done. However, this approach is limited because it is based on short-term maximization. Too much linear thinking will lead to exploitation and burnout, be it on an individual, local or global level.
In our current times, linear thinking doesn’t provide the solutions which are desperately needed to solve our deepest economic, financial, environmental and educational challenges. Electric cars (environment), capitalism (economy) and binge learning (education) are all linear solutions having negative longterm consequences.
Instead, we need to accept the fact that we live in a circular world where circular thinking is absolutely necessary to achieve regeneration, sustainability, balance and synergy effects. If you want to read more about that topic, I highly recommend this blog post about circular systems.
If you want to master circular thinking, you first need to understand the concept of feedback loops. Basically, there are only 2 kinds of feedback loops, balancing loops and reinforcing loops.
A reinforcing feedback loop reinforces previous changes within a system. This often leads to a snowball effect. A good example is the relation between success and motivation. If you have success, your motivation will increase, which will improve your success again, which makes your motivation go up again (etc).
In contrast, a balancing loop stabilizes the state of a system to achieve self-regulation. A good example of a balancing feedback loop is the relationship between stress and relaxation. If your stress level increases, there comes a point where you need relaxation, which eventually will decrease your stress again.
Other great examples of feedback loops in nature can be found in this video:
Reinforcing and balancing feedback loops are not per se good or bad. While balancing loops can lead to stability within a system, reinforcing loops do accelerate growth and positive change. However, in term of negative effects, balancing loops can lead to stagnation and rigidity while reinforcing loops can lead to overload and eventually even chaos.
Assuming you understand the concept of feedback loops, how do you apply them in your day-to-day life?
Put simply, start to manage the feedback loops in your life.
First of all, a robust system needs both:
- Reinforcing loops for growth.
- Balancing feedback loops for stability.
No matter whether we talk about your job, relationships, finances, or life in general.
If you have a look at most people’s lives, they either stay the same and don’t improve (too many balancing loops) or they are overwhelmed because they do too much (too many reinforcing feedback loops).
To prevents this, have a closer look at all of your life areas. Where are your balancing loops? Where are your reinforcing loops? Do you even have both types of feedback loops in your life?
A good balance will help you to master the Ying and Yang in life. You will be able to achieve a balance between the old and new, contraction and expansion, security and adventure.
To create better feedback loops in your life, ask yourself these questions:
How good are you at handling chaos (do you have stable feedback loops)?
Some Examples: Relaxation Techniques, helpful friends, working at a process-driven company, good work-life balance.
Do you have growth impulses in your life (do you have reinforcing loops)?
Some Examples: reading books, meeting new people, having passion projects, interesting colleagues.
Which balancing loops in your life prevent change?
Some Examples: toxic friends, repeating job, protective parents or partner, laws & regulation, culture.
This is the part where most systems thinking advice fails – Putting things into practice.
If you want to apply your attained systems knowledge, there are 4 independent avenues you can go to. Ideally, you do several of these things at the same time:
As mentioned in the introduction, walking through life with a systems mindset is half the battle. The mere fact that you look at life from a systems perspective will give you one huge advantage:
If you can identify a system, you can improve it.
So from now on, everything in your life is a system. Your wardrobe, your desktop, your filing system, your social circle, your finances, and your job. Every new project you start is a system. Every new goal of yours will be designed around a well-thought system.
As soon as you do this, you will set yourself apart from every other human being . Where other people see chaos and randomness, you will see the potential for systems development. Everywhere in your life, you will see parts working together as an interconnected whole to achieve a shared goal.
Once you internalized a systems mindset, it’s time to personalize your theoretical knowledge from the previous chapters. Because so far, all of these ideas and concepts are rather abstract than spontaneously accessible in your day-to-day life. You need to enrich these abstract concepts by practical examples. To achieve this, re-read every chapter of this web guide and try to relate to your daily life. Here are some starting points:
Systems Mapping: Sketch out at least one system from your day to day life. Identify its environment, its parts and their interactions in the form of flow.
Basic Principles: Once you created that sketch (you did that, right?), analyze which system principles apply to this example. Look for interdependence. relationships and cycles.
Environment: Often when we experience a chaotic or problematic situation, we focus too much on the actual event. Instead, it can be very beneficial to take a step back and look at the surroundings. For example, consider the problem of bad nutrition: A change of your environment (lazy friends, party lifestyle, stress at work, inconsistent sleep rhythm) can improve your nutrition without changing nutrition itself
Iteration: Almost every one of us has this one business idea which never gets implemented. Oftentimes, we get paralyzed by our own huge expectations. We don’t start because we don’t know what to do first. This can be easily solved by applying iteration. For example, instead of building a complete software, create a scrappy UI mockup you can show your potential customers first. Instead of writing a book, just write the table of contents and show it to interested people.
There is no way around it, you need to build your own systems.
No matter how much of theory you know, it depends on what you make of it.
Your first practical systems thinking steps are crucial to building experience, trust, and momentum. How else can you learn this stuff?
So – how to start?
First of all, you need to be able to find problems and activities which need systematization. This can be achieved by sharpening your view for recurring problems, inefficient processes and chaotic situations (keyword: systems mindset).
After you identified several systems opportunities, I’d recommend starting with the smallest system. Keep improving that system until it works perfectly. Once this is done, build the next largest system. As you get more systems experience under your belt, you can include other people, technology and tools. But for now, pick a small system, set a simple goal and just start.
To get your creative juices flowing, here are some systems examples with different difficulty levels:
Level 1 systems: Your wallet, wardrobe, refrigerator, filing system, hard disk.
Level 2 systems: Your household, nutrition, fitness, education.
Level 3 systems: Your finances, family life, job, business, and professional network.
In order to fully understand what I mean, I’m going to explain the systems thinking process briefly by using the refrigerator-example.
This may sound like a trivial example, but given the fact that the average American household throws away 30% of his food, this system can save you more than a thousand dollars per year.
First, let’s set a simple goal: Every refrigerator in this world needs to:
- Provide fresh food
- Reduce waste.
Next, let’s analyze the two most common problems (events) of refrigerators:
- Wrong amount of food (either too much, not enough, or wrong ingredients)
- Expired food (mold)
With these two problems (keyword: constraints) in mind, we need to analyze the refrigerator systems parts and its related environment. This includes:
- Refrigerator parts (food, food container, shelves, temperature setting)
- Your Shopping Routine (food as input)
- Your Cooking Routine (food as output – way 1)
- Your Snacking Routine (food as output – way 2)
To solve these two problems, we don’t need to focus too much on the parts of the refrigerator system, but rather on its environment. As we can see in the figure above, the input needs to be aligned with the output of the system, otherwise, there will be too much or not enough food. In other words, you have to eat what you buy within the period of a week. A possible solution could be planning your weekly meals in advance and buying ingredients accordingly.
Of course, there are many things we could this system can be improved, but this one improvement will have the biggest effect on your refrigerator system (keyword – leverage point).
But, just for the sake of it, these things could also improve the refrigerator system:
- Set the perfect temperature.
- Check your refrigerator weekly for expired food.
- using only transparent boxes to see molded food immediately.
- cleaning your fridge monthly.
As you have seen in this example, we didn’t use many advanced systems concepts from this web guide. We just applied basic systems mapping and used leverage points/constraints to get things going. The rest was just using common sense.
If you want to take your systems thinking skills to a really high level, you need to become a student of the game.
Start to look around and explore systems, from nature, history, economy, business, and technology:
- Explore the system dynamics of ant colonies
- Research the system of checks and balances
- Understand the ecological system of the rain forest
- Break down the Apple support system
Please don’t just google “systems thinking“, but try to analyze things from a systems perspective. Whenever you experience a complex problem, look for root causes and ask deeper questions than everyone else (hint: iceberg model).
Then, there’s one last tip (which may sound strange at first) – Try to envision the future of a system.
More precisely, look at a company, country, political or economical system, and derive the next 10, 50 or 100 years, based on the current problems, dynamics, and possibilities of this system.
Believe it or not, but playing games is an awesome way to improve your systems thinking skills. Strategy games (computer and board games), which require managing complex systems over time, are particularly suited. Take the game risk, for example, where one needs to master complex systems thinking concepts like feedback loops and leverage points. But not only that, all of these concepts have to be applied intuitively.
It is no wonder that many of today’s entrepreneurs have played video strategy games in their youth.
If you are further interested in that topic, check out these resources:
- Games can make you a better strategist (blog post)
- How to learn complex systems thinking skills through games (video)
- How to use games for complex systems thinking skills (video)