Systems Thinking - Getting the Big Picture

Published by MBA Skool Team, Published on November 04, 2011

When we try to assemble the jigsaw pieces of organisational world, one important tool comes to rescue called Systems Thinking. In Simple terms, it is a way to view systems from a broader perspective and understand the micro structures, patterns and cycles rather than focussing on specific events in the system. This unique approach to problems is interwoven with system dynamics which was founded in 1956 by MIT professor Jay Forrester.

To ingrain the concepts of systems thinking, understanding “Systems” is a pre-requisite which can’t be ignored. A system is a web of interrelated and interdependent components that complete the complex whole. Our body has various systems like circulatory, respiratory etc. The sales department in an organisation is another example. Every system has some common characteristics:

  • A purpose within a larger system.
  • Specific arrangement of system’s parts so that the overall system works perfectly.
  • System should trigger a change on feedback.
  • System should maintain stability by adjusting based on feedback.

Coming back to systems thinking, its application on most difficult types of problems have been found quite effective where apparent solutions have failed and a need to raise the level of thinking has been found. Its use can be associated at individual as well as in organisations where complexities exist at every next step before reaching a solution.

To make the understanding on this issue clearer, we need to analyse the real world examples like the one which follows. In 1993, a peculiar event happened in Bangalore whose repercussions affected various systems and gave us a reason to know Systems thinking in a better manner. Farmers were lathicharged during a protest and in that order government signed on a suicide note. It all started with a weed called Parthenium Hysterophorus which affects the growth of crops and its pollination creates asthmatic problems to the people who come in contact. When people complained, government acted upon the issue by forming a committee to look into the matter. In due course of time, they were able to come up with a natural solution, a beetle called Zygogramma bicolorata which fed on parthenium.But the story did not end here. Eventually, beetles ran out of Parthenium and started eating sunflowers in nearby farms. When farmers ran out of options to control them, they protested and government’s response came with a lathicharge.

Now, where can we put systems thinking in this matter! First we need to identify the flow of events. Or say “use the power of mind’s eye”.

Parthenium weedàCity people affectedàComplain to govtàExpert committee formedà solution found in beetleàBeetle ate Parthenium.

When entire mind focus is on solving symptoms of the problem ,we find a plausible solution but the root cause remains unaddressed  which gives rise to unintended consequences. In scientific terms, we call it counter-intuitive type 1. Missing the connectivity in nature is a basic reason for CI-1.This happens in various dimensions including national level policy decision making where we have all kind of experts analysing all kind of situations. Some classic examples are: King toad problem in Australia, elk problem in yellow Stone Park. World of allopathic medicines are full of CI-1 situations.

In counter-intuitive type 2, when we reach to the solution for a problem, an anti-problem arises. The primary reason for this phenomenon is: working against the flow in nature. It can be related to a titration experiment where an extra drop leads to a sudden change. In phrasal term, last straw on camel’s back. Common example: consider a controversial movie which gets a ban. It attracts the interest of people and that pulls them to watch it. Another instance happens to be in beetle bailey cartoon where, to solve the problem of increasing number of rats an incentive of 1 $ was introduced which led to more breeding of rats for the benefits attached. In Thane and Jalandhar, this case happened for real and people responded in same fashion.

How to resolve these problems:

To address the root causes of the problems as explained earlier, what is needed is a larger window of perception. In this connection, Donella Meadows used a simulation model in 1972 of earth systems which predicted that earth will reach the limit of economic growth in 150 years. This is a cumulated effect of missing infinite connectivity and using “me today” as window of perception to solve systems problems. Great souls who walked this planet had eternity and universality as their window of perception. What we can do is to enlarge the window to learn the way systems work. For a manager, understanding the importance of integration of knowledge and people is a top priority in order to achieve the desired goals.


This article has been authored by Mihirkul Vikram from IIT, Roorkee

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