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What Is Systems Thinking?

Systems theory is one of the major breakthroughs in the understanding of organisations. It studies organisational systems from the perspective of the whole system, the various subsystems and the recurring patterns in the relationship between the subsystems. System theory has a great influence on how we understand and change organisational structure.

“Systems Thinking is the art and science of making reliable inferences about behavior by developing an increasingly deep understanding of underlying structure” – Barry Richmond, American systems scientist

Simply put, it is a management discipline that concerns an understanding of a system by examining the linkages and interactions between the components that made up the entire structure of a system. By setting sights on the system as an entity, company’s management can identify problems, also known as the ‘leverage points’, and conceptualise solutions. Accurately identifying leverage points can support constructive change.

Figure 1: Analytical Vs. Systemic Thinking[1]

The fundamental assumption of systems thinking is that everything is systemic – everything interacts with the things around it. In order to achieve a different outcome from a situation, management needs to think how to change the system that underpins the situation in a way that it delivers different output

A successful solution or strategy indicates that our mental paradigm (the model of the system in our mind) reflects the situation (the system) well. And a failed solution reflects the opposite.

Henceforth, systemic thinking is similar to troubleshooting our own mental paradigms as troubleshooting the situations we face.

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[1] Figure is taken from Systemic Thinking – A Simple Thinking Technique for Gaining Systemic Focus by Gary Bartlett, Probsolv at The International Conference on Thinking “Breakthroughs 2001”.

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