How do you penetrate the Systems Thinking morass?


Systems thinking is on to something.  There’s something there.  It harbors truths that conventional business and organisational perspectives miss. It is easy to get this impression from the volumes of social media, literature and management debate it continues to sustain after three decades.  But systems thinking as a discipline or body of knowledge does not make it easy to get to those insights and truths.  Ways to penetrate the systems thinking morass are neither obvious or accessible.

On FastCompany‘s Co.Design, Fred Collopy discusses ways to improve the accessibility of design thinking. Collopy argues that systems thinking (think Ackoff, Churchman, Checkland and others) shares many of the conceptual foundations of design thinking, notably the application of design ideas to strategy, organisation, society and management.  Systems thinking promised to be a powerful guide to management practice, but never achieved the success its proponents hoped for, he claims.

The problem is that systems thinking assimilated too much from, well, just about every associated epistemology (he lists them), got bogged down by scale and complexity, and eventually became moribund.   Too much for any one planner or designer to navigate or penetrate.

Of course this is legitimate criticism.  Which of us who have perceived the intrinsic appeal of  ‘systems thinking’ or have experienced the recognition of an archetypal ‘system’ lurking beneath the murky soup of an organisational change problem have not felt frustration at the difficulty of operationalising this knowledge and insight more broadly?

Systems thinking is not and never will be ‘modern’ — it is not amenable to reduction to a universal worldview, process or method.  It does not present itself as a neatly packaged antidote for an enterprise headache.  And the dispersed theory and scattered practice lends it a kind of  disorganised if not zen quality.

Collopy is concerned that design thinking will hit the same snags:

The drive to nail “design thinking” down has the same normative flavor that has restricted the spread of systems thinking. The urge to create a framework that specifies what and how a design thinker proceeds seems not just futile but dangerous to the survival of a movement aimed at expanding the kinds of thinking that managers, policy makers and citizens engage in.

Design thinking was never meant to be a one-size-fits-all master plan.  It was always a bricolage of bits and pieces that kind of work, but not necessarily together or in strict sequence, to get you to good design, or more human-centred design outcomes.  Designers are free to take a piece and use it independent of all the other pieces.  So on one level I don’t see Collopy’s problem.  Neither can I equate the relative complexity of design thinking (essentially a form of rapid prototyping) with the broad epistemology of systems thinking.  So I leave the claimed impenetrability of design thinking here, as being not the most important problem.  Systems thinking, however, does have an accessibility problem.  And I for one am not pronouncing it dead yet.

Collopy’s proposal for design thinking might also work for systems thinking. Instead of grandiose attempts at a unifying framework Collopy suggests structuring the design thinking material around domains and problems, such that the individual pieces of design thinking can drive incremental learning in context:

…focus instead on building and describing an arsenal of methods and techniques, many of them drawn from various extant design practices, that are applicable to the domains and problems in questions. Describing these techniques as well as the conditions under which each is of value would constitute an invaluable program of research.

Perspectives based on problem types and domains does seem a useful way for practitioners to get value from systems thinking.  It raises the question of taxonomy to provide this access by structuring techniques and demarcating narratives.   Industry type is one candidate, but the same problem types span many industries.  Information domains likewise.  Problem classification itself has faced many definitional and taxonomic challenges, for example, the issue of scale — is it more useful to talk about design thinking approaches to financial industry problems, market problems, trading problems, or double entry book keeping problems?  The lower down you go the closer you get to design patterns.

Taking bits of design thinking (sketching, problem framing, etc) to address particular problems in particular contexts is reminiscent of how the design patterns movement of the 1970s (Christopher Alexander) and its software renaissance in the 1990s found value.  They discovered that the only way to arrive at a workable taxonomy is to let it emerge. Quality emerges over time with use and continuous refinement of both the patterns (design thinking parts) and the wider pattern language (design thinking per se).

I agree that the parts of systems thinking must be useful individually, and for the most part they are.  I am not sure that a project to design a universal problem-based master index to systematise and classify the parts of systems thinking will ever work.  This was Peter Senge’s project, and while it made great leaps for the time, it reflects the late-modern perspective on methods of its day.

Today’s knowledge is pragmatically constructed and socially mediated. Better to continue to set the theories and constituent parts of systems thinking free in the great ecosystem of knowledge, our internet-mediated business culture, where they develop a life (or not) based on commodity, firmness and delight. And relevance.  If we have to have a project, a better one would be to share those stories with others to coax out the narratives of systems thinking successes in the domains, cultures and languages of our communities.  In as much as we already do this, let’s just carry on.


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