The Art of Systems Thinking - Part One





“Problems that are created by our current level of thinking can’t be solved by that same level of thinking.” - Albert Einstein.

When you are designing your learning solution, how do you pinpoint what problem you are solving? Over the years of working in learning and development I have seen this done well and in other cases not so well. So, what is the formula for the best problem solving? How do you get to the real core of the problem?

There are a range of strategies and formulas used for problem solving that can be useful though there are many other compounding factors than can often be missed (intentionally or not). The topic of ‘Systems Thinking’ is so in-depth and can be difficult to put onto paper though I think it is just so important to consider in the business environment, especially when you are designing learning solutions.

So first of all, “What is ‘Systems Thinking’?”

‘System thinking is a method of critical thinking by which you analyse the relationships between the system’s parts in order to understand a situation for better decision making.’ - (Grimsley, 2017).

A simpler way to look at this is by comparing it to the growth of a garden. The flowers, the insects, the soil and the weather all play a part in the way the garden develops. The exact same process occurs in the business environment. Every system has a deep underlying structure, the question is how do you review your organisation’s structure? What parts of the business environment should be taken into consideration and how can you measure them?


As this topic has many considerations, much like the parts of a garden, this blog will be split into parts. I am not going to lie, ‘Systems Thinking’ can be difficult and it can take years for someone to have a complete understanding of the process. I will admit that I do not have a complete understanding of the concept. I am just intrigued by the impact that it can have. When ‘Systems Thinking’ is put into practice the benefits from learning outcomes can be so effective. From one end of the spectrum where learning has been assigned for the sake of it with no consideration of the environment or contributing factors to the other end of the spectrum where a learning solution is designed with all perspectives and factors in mind. What I aim to do for this blog is to explore parts of the model that can have a substantial impact on the decisions you make in your organisation and the types of learning solutions that you produce.

The below model is the Iceberg Model, which will support you in thinking more systematically. This particular blog will explore the observable behaviours above the surface and each blog following it will delve deeper, finally reaching the transformation stage. So, let’s start with the ‘Events’ Stage.


The Iceberg Model (Northwest Earth Institute, 2017).

                                                           Events (React):

Explanation: 

The ‘Event’ level of thinking refers to observable behaviours and ‘what is happening’. As you can see by looking at the Iceberg Model, the ‘observable’ part of a problem only represents 10% of the iceberg, the other 90% is underwater. This provides some insight into the magnitude of parts involved in every situation or problem (REOS, 2010).

Example:

An example of this is an argument between co-workers. Imagine you observe an argument taking place and you separate them to stop the argument from progressing. Whilst you have dealt with the symptom of the issue (the argument) there is much more at play under the surface that has been avoided such as the reason for the argument, the culture of the organisation and the relationship between the co-workers. Another way this can take place is when something happens within an organisation, for example the CEO starts avoiding staff, a policy changes, staff in a team are made redundant or sales in an organisation drop. All of these things are observable events that is seen by everyone. How each person perceives it and the reasons why it occurs is the next level below the surface.

Considerations: 

1. Lack of ‘Systems Thinking’ creates a mental model that only focuses on this ‘observable’ aspect. This gives a shallow understanding of the way a system works and can result in missing important information and levers for change (Thwink, 2014).

2. Even though this is a surface level stage in the model and there is much more to consider below the surface, it is still important for problem solving and instructional design.

3. This level is used to state the problem or learning need at a higher level e.g. Employees are struggling to deal with customers on the phone, staff are working overtime and seem stressed or sales are dropping.

4. When you have a problem or learning need, get the observable problem out on paper. This is a great starting point and will support you to delve deeper into the problem from there.

5. It is important to delve deeper and understand the contributing factors to the problem. It is tempting to discover a problem and attempt to fix it quickly and efficiently. The risk of this is that you may miss targeting the root cause of the problem and therefore the problem will just continue to return due to the underlying structure contributing to it still being in play.

What experiences have you had with observable problems taking place and quick fixes being applied? This can be very common in the business world and we would love to know how others have learnt from it. Keep an eye out for the next blog on ‘Patterns of Behaviour’.

Here at Belvista Studios we want to continue to support businesses and ourselves be the best we can at our craft. We look forward to initiating this learning journey on ‘Systems Thinking’ and supporting you to apply it to your organisation.

                                                               References

Grimsley, S. (2017). Systems Thinking in Management: Definition, Theory & Model. Retrieved from: http://study.com/academy/lesson/systems-thinking-in-management-definition-theory-model.html

Northwest Earth Institute (2017). A Systems Thinking Model: The Iceberg. Retrieved from: https://www.nwei.org/iceberg/

REOS. (2010). Systems Thinking with the Iceberg: A tool for multi-stakeholder System Site. Retrieved from: http://reospartners.com/wp-content/uploads/old/Systems%20Thinking%20With%20the%20Iceberg%20Module%20Sept10.pdf

Thwink. (2014). Systems Thinking. Retrieved from: http://thwink.org/sustain/glossary/SystemsThinking.htm

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