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Bring Systems Thinking To The Masses

The world’s problems are getting bigger all the time. Systems Thinking is for addressing complex problems. Yet Systems Thinking remains in the “backwaters”. Big reason why: Folks have an incomplete and disjointed understanding of what Systems Thinking is. Solution: Create a “Just Barely Complex Enough” model of a hypothetical organization system, and use it to, for the first time, tie together the concepts associated with DSRP (Distinctions, Systems, Relationships, and Perspectives), systems dynamics, the VMS (Viable Systems Model), etc.

I’m worried that it’s not that. Systems thinking, analysis, design, are great universal tools for approaching complexity (and it’s urgently needed, as it’s naive to believe that a simplistic view on the world can be maintained/afforded), despite not absolutely perfect in every regard.

But let’s consider if we had all of what you’re proposing (and in some ways, some of it is around and in operation). Then, still, system thinkers are not owning/operating the factories or the companies or are in power in politics, so how would they be in position to change anything? Factories, companies, politics in part exist precisely for the reason of ignoring, violating and exploiting system structures for their own benefit, and they have no interest to change that.

On the other hand, there are some systemic approaches to introduce change in some other ways. One is education (ideally early/children, but then it takes forever and is too slow given the massive and urgent and quickly-worsening situation we’re already in, and more people get born every day to which you have no access to or control over), another could be identifying crucial systemic pressure points or lever/leverage points to invest small effort/energy and have a huge effect, another would be designing and releasing patterns/algorithms that replicate and spread and cause reasonable, healthy, positive changes. Each of these can also go wrong, and be used for bad too (plus, who decides which is which, but no need to go into that of course).

Just realize that this is in “Action”. What first practical action/activity step would you propose to get towards that direction/goal?

First Action: I have, using a simple hypothetical business case, already largely done the all important first step of integrating the two primary “chunks” of Systems Thinking (ST): Activity based ST and Causality based ST.

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That’s excellent, love it! First step already off the ground :slight_smile: So then, what’s the next step? Or is it the final touches/completion of the first?

Skreutzer said: System thinkers are not owning/operating the factories or the companies or are in power in politics, so how would they be in position to change anything? Factories, companies, politics in part exist precisely for the reason of ignoring, violating and exploiting system structures for their own benefit, and they have no interest to change that.

Ohhhhh, if they are hungry enough, they will give an outsider (the Systems Thinker) the political help necessary to drive through change.

Admittedly, that reply was still from before when I was not aware that this is under the “Action” category, so please apologize, will not start to speculate on potential future states of systems :slight_smile: I don’t think it impacts/blocks/prevents this task/activity of “bring systems thinking to the masses” and the current/next step, does it? Doesn’t seem to be related to progress on completing or applying an hypothetical organizational system.

Next step is to get critical feedback from as many as possible on the first step. Go to Download the Powerpoint (sorry, complete web site not available yet). Evaluate slides 9 through 42 for understandability/completeness.

(Note: Extensive review on my part indicate that those slides are the first legitimate attempt - even by the recognized experts - to tie together the two major “chunks” of systems thinking; activity-centric and causality-centric. Once we integrate those two “chunks” , it opens up a flood of missing integration on a wide scope of other Systems Thinking concepts.)

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Spot on! A to-the-point description of what the task/activity/invitation is, and no need to worry for premature perfection, we can’t allow that to stop us. Just have a look at my activity invitations, it’s early, primitive, rough bits and pieces, very far from the final results… Rather propose/invite/try early, and then hopefully peers can jump in and work on it and improve, together.

I personally will likely wait a little in case there’s forum members here who are both generous enough and readily joining this task and review the slides, but in case nobody does after some time, I can well imagine having a closer look myself and provide feedback. Feel free to remind me if I forget, but at the other hand, I would assume we get into some process of reviewing the actions regularly, so no need to worry. :slight_smile:

Good work of providing the material and organizing/guiding this activity! :muscle:

Thanks a lot skreutzer

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Below is an example (from a previous online post of mine) of what I mean by missing integrations that are brought together once we tie together activity-centric (Data Flow Diagrams) and causality-centric (Causal Loop Diagrams)

Note: In the “world” of the Systems Dynamics folks, “dynamics” largely means feedback loops. In the “world” of the Business Analysis folks, “dynamics” largely means systems state and non-linear activities. Neither group knows much about the other. But their concepts often tie together (in this case under the heading of Dynamics)

Dynamics of Organizational Systems

Causal Loop Diagrams (CLDs) capture feedback loops, an important dynamic of an organizational system. To create CLDs for complex systems, we first discover what the system’s goals and their supporting activities are via Data Flow Diagrams (DFDs). We also translate DFD inputs/outputs into the causalities of CLDs. Each input/output maps to a causality.

Another dynamic is state. The behavior of an activity is not only a direct consequence of its inputs, but it also depends on its preceding state.

To model the state of each activity across an organizational system, we need to first look at the bigger picture by modeling integrated input/activity/output via DFDs. (Note: DFDs are for modeling any inputs/outputs, not just data.)

There are separate modeling techniques to then model the details of the state of a given activity, such as transition state diagrams.

Another dynamic we typically need to model for organizational systems is non-linear activity. In complex organizational systems, except at the very detail level, there are often relatively few linear activities. Any activity can “kick-off” at any point in time, provided that its prerequisite inputs are present. Modeling the non-linear activity dynamics of an organization is also a task of DFDs.

Here are a few aha! moments I have had on the topic along the way…

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Hi Gene, saw your excellent intro to the system modeling in one of the OGM calls, that was great in my opinion! As this is the “Action” category, would you consider/volunteer to review the slides @Tony requested help with? You don’t need to do all of them, could very well be split up. Other than that, the video link you shared might fit in into compiling some kind of introduction/course/material to have a very easy, concise guide for interested people to get familiar and fluent to navigate the systems theory space, as, if I understand correctly, Tony too is proposing. And surely you have such material of your own, and maybe Tony is in the process of creating some, and there are other sources as well, but in the OGM context, it could be the task to form something from different sources together, to also offer multiple perspectives, presentations, styles, in the hope that one of them snaps with the reader/viewer, to map out what’s already available, and to get better ourselves with our pedagogy :slight_smile:

Hi Gene!

The video you give a link to talks about the very important consideration of how we introduce organizational systems change, especially in reference to silos.

But separately there is the issue of understanding how the concepts of Systems Thinking interrelate, which is what I am focused on.

Tony, I’m not sure I quite understand the 2nd paragraph. From your perspective what are the concepts of Systems Thinking? And maybe even better yet, what is your definition of systems thinking?


I define a system as goal supporting activities that take inputs and create outputs. A logical (implementation independent) set of Data Flow Diagram represents a system. DFDs are an input to the creation of Causal Loop Diagrams (which are a problem solving technique)

My above definition of a system is per my work experience: Organizational systems. Does it apply to like planetary systems? If the system has a goal, then it would appear so.

What is your defintion of a system?

My Systems Thinking concepts include:

  • It’s not synthesis (holism) nor analysis (reductionism), it is using synthesis to guide the system breakdown

  • It is not just System/Subsystem. It is concurrent System/Subsystem and Interrelationship/ Sub Interrelationship. .

  • Dynamic related concepts of feedback loops, non-linear behavior of activities, equifinality, and state

  • Systems have Goals and a boundary

  • Recursion within organizational system

  • Synergy, emergence, determinism, etc., etc.

And then there is what I consider the greatest Systems Thinking concept of all: The need to avoid forced, artificial partitioning. Forced, artificial partitioning includes, for example, the use of linear lists to try and present highly intertwined concepts, such as I just above tried to:-)

All the books that I have reviewed (a lot) use forced, artificial partitioning to try to explain Systems Thinking. They largely fail. This is the reason I suggest as an activity here on OGM that we, through the use of simple hypothetical system models. “bring INTEGRATED systems thinking to the masses.”

Tony, I’m not smart enough to remember all that so I just decided to chuck all the terms and just think about And?

Your next to the last paragraph seems to embody the Taoist practice of Non-Ado or Wu Wei in Confucianism.

Gene said: Your next to the last paragraph seems to embody the Taoist practice of Non-Ado or Wu Wei in Confucianism.

Don’t know about those, I am Roman Catholic

Tony, essentially through no inharmounious action nothing will be left undone!

The OMG ‘project’, in my perhaps wishful-thinking-biased perception, starts from a sense of: there are big (global) problems, and not a lot of global agreement about how to deal with them, but the urgent sense that ‘something needs to be done’. Of the various positions we see, in starting the discussion, one is that it will ‘take an open global mind’ and another main ones that ‘systems thinking’ will be needed to provide the answers. They invariably generate fundamental questions / issues like ‘How to achieve open minds?’ and "How to bring Systems Thinking to the Masses?

I can’t disagree with either of these issues, of course. But what if they are themselves part of the sets of the positions humanity doesn’t seem to be able to agree upon? (In part because e.g. the Systems Thinkers themselves disagree on what Systems Thinking is and even on the definition of ‘system’ …) And thus inadvertently closing some ‘other’ doors rather than opening them, besides getting lost in the definitions issues?

So besides repeating my standard Ceterum censeo that we first end to construct a better platform for that discourse, I suggest that it might be useful to just start looking at one or two of the big problems that call for better responses, and try to articulate ‘what might be done’ ideas for discussion (from the systems thinking but all the other perspectives as well!) – to see what we get and what answers can be globally agreed upon?