Systems Thinking FAQ:

Frequently Asked Questions about Human/Social/Living Systems

It is helpful to distinguish the three types of models that are introduced here. David Kantor, in his pioneering work on model-building, identified these categories for our Frequently Asked Questions as well as our 4th Category Definitions of Systems and Systems Thinking.

The Basics of Systems Thinking: Part I:

Definitions of Systems and Systems Thinking

  1. What do you mean by a System?
  2. How do you define Systems and Systems Thinking?
  3. Where can you apply Systems Thinking?
  4. What do you mean by the comprehensive nature of Systems Thinking?
  5. What is wrong with Analytical Thinking, as it has gotten us a highly advanced world in the 21st Century?
  6. What do we mean by Human/Social/Living Systems Thinking?
  7. What are the Eight Levels of Human/Social/Living Systems?
  8. Why Systems Thinking?

Systems Thinking Schools of Thought: Part II:

Systems Thinking: How it evolved

  1. How many Schools of Thought are there around Systems Thinking?
  2. If Systems Thinking is about holism, then why does the literature around Systems Thinking have four Schools of Thought?
  3. Who are the Leaders in Systems Thinking?
  4. Where does Critical Thinking fit into Systems Thinking? Isn’t it used in schools?
  5. What are the CAUSAL LOOPS that I have heard about?
  6. How does Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits fit into Systems Thinking?
  7. How does Deming’s TQM legacy fit with Systems Thinking?
  8. Was Peter Drucker a Systems Thinker?

Application of Changing Systems: Part III:

Models of Systems Thinking Practice: How it helps a system change and evolve

  1. How do you learn and apply Systems Thinking?

Summary: Part IV:

  1. What is different in this new Global Association for Systems Thinking® (GAST) from all other Systems Thinking Associations?
  2. Using analytical, piecemeal solutions to systems problems.
Rule

Answers

The Basics of Systems Thinking: Part I:

Definitions of Systems and Systems Thinking

  1. What do you mean by a System?
    • There are many kinds of systems on our planet, such as:
      1. biological (fish, birds);
      2. mechanical (pencil);
      3. electrical (home lighting);
      4. electronic (computers);
      5. wifi/telecommunications (cell phones);
      6. ecological (regions of the world);
      7. human/social/living systems (us here on earth);
      8. the entire planet/globe and the sustainability of it.
    • While many of these systems above have things in common that are helpful to learn to really understand Systems, they are not the focus of this Association. However, all of them are parts of the Human/Social/Living Systems upon which we are focusing.

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  2. How do you define Systems and Systems Thinking?
    • A system is made up of interrelated parts—components—elements whose sole purpose should be to support the objectives of the whole system
      • Each element has an effect on the functioning of the whole
      • Each element is affected by at least one other element in the system
      • The system has properties that none of its elements do
    • Systems Thinking is finding patterns and relationships and learning how to reinforce or change these patterns to better fulfill your desired vision and missions—desired outcomes. Systems Thinking is about “Gap” analysis between today and Future Desired Outcomes.

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  3. Where can you apply Systems Thinking?
    • It has been applied at many human/social/living system levels with clarity—simplicity—and speed (see Question #6 for more details of Systems Levels) as a comprehensive framework.
    • It has been applied in many situations, issues, and projects.
    • It has been applied on every continent and most countries in the world. See IFSR (International Federation for Systems Research) for many Systems Thinking Organizations around the world
    • It has been applied successfully in many sectors: public—private—not-for-profit—military— and government at all levels.

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  4. What do you mean by the comprehensive nature of Systems Thinking?
    • Our world has a set of universal laws and principles in a number of fields, including life cycle, food chain on land and in the water, our 24 hour (almost) day, 365 (plus) days in a year, gravity, wind, fire, air, sun and moon, etc.
      So there is no reason why life on earth would not be subject to the universal laws on earth as well.

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  5. What is wrong with Analytical Thinking, as it has gotten us a highly advanced world in the 21st Century?
    • Fact:
      The kind of analytical thinking and actions we generally use today in our Human/Social/Living Systems has led to both:
      —Spectacular successes and
      —Spectacular Failures (Huge, intractable, chronic problems we cannot seem to solve).
    • Why? Hypothesis:
      —The way we think has something to do with it since it precedes the planning and actions leading to poor results. More specifically, linear thinking ignores time delays and unintended consequences of actions – two factors that lead to non-obvious and often less than desirable outcomes.
      Moreover, most of the problems that now confront us are systemic and do not improve in sustainable ways using a linear approach.
      —Adding an understanding and use of Systems Thinking will improve the probability of better and more sustainable problem solving and solution seeking.

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  6. What do we mean by Human/Social/Living Systems Thinking?
    • This type of Systems Thinking is “the natural way the world works.” It is very important to distinguish between living systems that incorporate human behavior and those that are simply focused on the natural world. The critical reason for this is that people (not nature) develop solutions to problems that often unwittingly make the problems worse.
      When our minds are trained to think linearly, we miss the importance of such system properties as ripple effects, time delays, and unintended consequences – and we blame others for what are often our own failures to think clearly and act responsibly.
    • It is based on over 50 years of scientific research by the Society for General Systems Research as well as at least four Schools of Thought (see Systems Thinking Research & Schools of Thought under Systems Thinking FAQ in the menu bar for details). Systems Thinking is a higher level thinking process sometimes called a “helicopter view of life” to see the whole system in its environment.
    • There are Eight Levels of Human/Social/Living Systems—the largest being earth—according to the research of James Greer Miller, one of the earliest Presidents of the Society for General Systems Research (Now called ISSS—See Association’s in the Global Resource Portal for more details).
    • There are at least 12 Natural Laws of Life on earth that apply to all eight levels of Human/Social/Living Systems equally according to the Society for General Systems Research published in their 1972 Annual by the American Management Association (see here for more details).
    • Our Human/Social/Living Systems are OPEN SYSTEMS that interact with and are sustained by their Environment and other Human/Social/Living Systems. Some systems are more open than others with significant implications for success. This is a key characteristic of our focus of this Association. Those more “closed-type” systems in today’s global and wifi world find it difficult to sustain themselves long term.
    • For a FREE Framework/Model of how systems naturally operate, see FREE ABCs Template on the Home Page.
    • There is also an excellent summary of system properties in Donnella Meadows’ posthumous book “Thinking in Systems”. Chapters 4 and 5 are especially important in this regard.

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  7. What are the Eight Levels of Human/Social/Living Systems?
    These Eight Levels of Human/Social/Living Systems include the following:
    Level #1: Cells-in our bodies—the purview of the Medical Profession-not GAST
    Level #2: Organs in our bodies—purview of Medical Profession again
    Level #3: Individuals-human beings—where GAST begins and covers all the rest of the levels
    Level #4: Teams-families, groups, departments, etc
    Level #5: Organizations-of all types in the world—private, public, non-profits, etc.
    Level #6: Communities of all types-such as a small town, an Internet community on LinkedIn, etc.
    Level #7: Societies of all types-such as countries, the Middle East, Asia, Christian, etc.
    Level #8: The Globe-world/earth—the largest known Human/Social/Living System

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  8. Why Systems Thinking?
    • It is a practical, more holistic and comprehensive framework for thinking— that can help us cut through the complexity of our world today with greater clarity, simplicity, and speed.
    • Since it is the best, most simple and holistic framework on how to think—its potential use is universal on earth.
    • It helps us achieve breakthroughs around chronic, complex problems – often ones which people have failed to solve despite their best efforts.
    • It is a better way to plan strategically—with a faster/quicker/ more sustainable way to act.
    • It has been proven over and over again that it achieves better and more sustainable results in our lives, our work and our world.
    • The problem is that we predominately use Analytical Thinking (piecemeal/mechanistic thinking) in a systems world, guaranteeing failure.
    • We can use Systems Thinking on a daily-weekly-monthly-yearly and multi-year basis on everything we do because it provides a comprehensive framework and application for thinking-acting in our world today. It simplifies complexity so we can work with the real world more effectively.
    • It is a simpler, clearer, and quicker way to see, to comprehensively analyze, understand, and take more effective action.
    • It forces a proactive, and futuristic desired outcomes focus. It quickly helps you find clarity first, and then solutions with elegant simplicity on the far side of complexity.

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Systems Thinking Schools of Thought: Part II:

Systems Thinking: How it evolved

  1. How many Schools of Thought are there around Systems Thinking?
    • At the present moment, we have collectively identified Four Schools of Thought and their Pioneers where the Fundamental Research about Systems Thinking originates. We may add to this in the future. The Society for General Systems Research is only one.
    • All of them add to the richness, tools and applications of Systems Thinking as they seem to have a number of common principles. Please see:

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  2. If Systems Thinking is about holism, then why does the literature around Systems Thinking have four Schools of Thought?
    • Systems Thinking is like all other areas of scholarly research in that there are a number of related strands or Schools of Thought based on solid research. They have evolved over time depending on the careers and life cycles of the Pioneers and others. All of them however, seem to have the common principles noted earlier, which is their common glue.
    • It is generally recognized however, that the Father of Systems Thinking is Ludwig von Bertalanffy, from Vienna, Austria.

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  3. Who are the Leaders in Systems Thinking?
    • The Society for General Systems Research was founded by Ludwig von Bertalanffy (LvB) in 1954.
    • LvB founded the Society with Kenneth Boulding, Ralph Gerard, and Anatol Rapport. Their goal was to search for the “Unity of Science for Living Systems.”
    • Some of the thought leaders in Systems Thinking include:
      • Russell Ackoff
      • Dick Beckhard
      • Peter Checkland
      • Stephen Covey
      • Edward Deming
      • Peter Drucker
      • Glenda Eoyang
      • Erik Erikson
      • Jay Forrester
      • Buckminster Fuller
      • Michael Goodman
      • Stephen Haines
      • Daniel Kim
      • Allenna Leonard
      • Abraham Maslow
      • Margaret Mead
      • Donella Meadows
      • Gerald Midgley
      • Jean Piaget
      • Peter Senge
      • David Peter Stroh

      Over 40 scientific disciplines are now moving towards Systems Thinking in the 21st Century as “interdisciplinary research/new disciplines” is now the norm in universities around the world.

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  4. Where does Critical Thinking fit into Systems Thinking? Isn’t it used in schools?
    • Critical Thinking is an important educational skill. We have a Systems Thinking Community of Excellence User Forum on just that specific issue. Join it and discuss the differences even though both are important and useful.
    • AMA defines Critical Thinking as “the ability to correctly understand information, a situation or a problem from different perspectives in order to take or suggest the best possible action”.
    We believe that education would be better served to also teach Systems Thinking and its applications. Join our Education User Forum to discuss and apply this.

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  5. What are the CAUSAL LOOPS that I have heard about?
    • One way to understand living systems is in terms of the feedback relationships that nurture, sustain, and sometimes undermine their effectiveness. For example, reinforcing feedback relationships among systems elements lead living systems to grow or collapse exponentially.
    • Balancing feedback relationships maintain equilibrium by adjusting system behavior to meet system goals. Balancing feedback relationships, which predominate in natural systems over reinforcing ones, also help explain the phenomenon of “resistance to change”, where the system seeks to continue achieving an existing goal and resists moving towards a new one.
    • One of the important distinctions between the natural world (including the functioning of traditional societies) and the “civilized” world of today is that balance is the essential organizing framework of the natural world, and growth (reinforcement) only occurs within that context.
    • By contrast, our civilized world values growth as the primary driver and often treats balance (e.g. limits) as a necessary but frustrating constraint on growth.
    • The movement towards sustainable development seeks to redress these two organizing frameworks in favor of the natural paradigm, which is the ultimate basis for human existence.
    • When combined in different ways, reinforcing and balancing feedback produce archetypal or classic patterns of behavior that manifest across a wide range of living systems.

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  6. How does Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits fit into Systems Thinking?
    • Covey’s best seller has Habit #2: “Begin with the end in Mind”, which is the starting point for Systems Thinking. He is a systems thinker at the individual level.

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  7. How does Deming’s TQM legacy fit with Systems Thinking?
    • Deming had four kinds of Profound Knowledge. “Theory of Systems” was #1

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  8. Was Peter Drucker a Systems Thinker?
    • Peter Drucker was born and raised in Vienna, Austria the same as Ludwig von Bertalanffy, the Founder of Systems Thinking. He was subject to the same flourishing Hapsburg Empire and its world-wide leading thought of Freud, Mozart and many others.
    • Peter Drucker, some say, invented management. For sure he was the #1 Management Consultant of all time—as a Systems Thinker.

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Application of Changing Systems: Part III:

Models of Systems Thinking Practice: How it helps a system change and evolve

  1. How do you learn and apply Systems Thinking?
    • As Stewart Emery observed, “Life is simple; it’s just not always easy.” Systems Thinking is also valuable in understanding why systems can be so difficult to change and what challenges we as change agents face in seeking to improve how they function.
    • For example, Donnella Meadows’ book “Thinking in Systems”, chapters 4-5 summarizes many of the challenges systems present to change agents. Chapter 7 of Meadow’s book is excellent as well. So is David Peter Stroh’s article “The Systems Orientation: From Curiosity to Courage” at http://www.appliedsystemsthinking.com/supporting_documents/PracticeCuriosityCourage.pdf as it offers recommendations on how we as change agents need to be, think, and behave in order to work effectively with systems.
    • Stroh’s article “Leveraging Change: The Power of Systems Thinking in Action” provides one framework for how to apply Systems Thinking within an organization. It is downloadable at http://www.bridgewaypartners.com/LSC_OL4AS2.pdf
    • Another framework for how to apply Systems Thinking follows (Stephen Haines):
      • First identify your system —The Eight Levels of Living Systems.
      • Then learn and apply the applicable principles from The 12 Natural Laws of Living Systems
      • Learn the ABCs Framework noted above and Universal Template (six of the 12 Natural laws).
      • Learn The Rollercoaster of Change, which distills over 20 theories of change into one and is natural, normal, and highly predictable.
      • Pick and watch for your favorites of the many common “Laws of Unintended Consequences”. It is the “Rubik’s Cube effect”. Ignore it to your peril.
    • The Archetypes found at Pegasus Communications are another list of these common Analytical Thinking mistakes we tend to make.

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Summary: Part IV:

  1. What is different in this new Global Association for Systems Thinking® (GAST) from all other Systems Thinking Associations?
    • There are a number of other Systems Thinking and related Associations that can be found on this website and they are all very important. Consider joining them. However, GAST is the only one that has a world–wide Clearinghouse for all Systems Thinking Schools of Thought and their practical applications and tools as well. We intend to take Systems Thinking mainstream in the World.
    • Many other Systems Thinking Associations focus mostly on the research in the field. While this Association does include a Clearinghouse for this research, our main focus is on the practical application of Systems Thinking in real time to achieve real and better results at the many Levels of Human/Social/Living Systems.
    • We also are an Alliance of the Premier Organizational Partners and Firms, Thought Leaders and Associations world-wide, taking Systems Thinking Applications into the Mainstream of today’s world. Our world is desperately in need of us and our Systems Thinking expertise and applications.
    • Our 40 (Plus) Systems Thinking Community of Excellence User Forums focus on actionable work and include “Discussions—Learnings—Collaborations—Tools—Applications—Actions and Better Results.”

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  2. Stop using analytical thinkingUsing analytical, piecemeal solutions to systems problems.
    • In Systems Thinking, “the whole is primary and the parts are secondary.”
    • In Analytical Thinking, “the parts are primary and the whole is secondary.”

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The Global Association for Systems Thinking®
“Your Tour Guide to the Universe of Systems Thinking”

SUBMISSIONS: If you have another question you feel is important to clarity Systems Thinking and should be included in this FAQ, Please submit it to the Founder of Global Association for Systems Thinking®, Stephen Haines.