A system is an interconnected set of elements organised in such a way as to achieve a certain purpose or function. Systems thinking acknowledges that the whole system is greater than the sum of its parts, and therefore attempts to take an integrated perspective about the whole structure. This approach is the antithesis of the rational paradigm, where science explores a particular element and then extrapolates the hypothesis to the function of the system as a whole.
Understanding a System
To understand a system, it requires identification of the parts and then exploration of the interconnections between these elements.
These interconnections form feedback loops. Feedback loops can be either balancing dynamics that stabilize the system or reinforcing dynamics that amplify a particular aspect of the system, creating either a virtuous or vicious circle of growth or destruction.
These dynamics are non-linear, so small changes might create any level of response, ranging from very small to very large, depending on the relative strength of feedback loops. What increases the complexity is that these changes are not immediately evident – there is always a delay between action and reaction.
Global systems, by their very nature, do not have boundaries, and their dynamics do not respect our human-centred delimitations. A systems approach requires an acknowledgement that there will never be complete information. However, once a system has been mapped and understood, it is then possible to ask ‘what if’ questions about future dynamics that might affect its integrity, whilst honouring this complexity and uncertainty. There could be long delays in feedback loops, which then require foresight in order to anticipate a problem before it becomes so obvious that it is impossible to solve.
The greatest complexities occur at the boundaries of the system, where there are overlapping systems with different, competing purposes. Probably the most important insight from systems thinking is that it is much more difficult to understand a system than to fix it. Attempts to modify the system almost invariably address the wrong goal. We often choose to change the parameters which attract our attention, such as subsidies, taxes and standards, but this provides little leverage over the system and is seldom worth the effort. What is important is often not what is quantifiable. In contrast, exploring the paradigms or the mindset out of which the system, together with its purpose, parameters and structure arises, is likely to make a transformative difference. In the words of Donatella Meadows: “All it takes is a click in the mind, a falling of scales from the eyes, a new way of seeing.”