I have been meeting lots of people lately who talk about being “systems thinkers.” As a person who has played in the field of system dynamics and systems thinking for two dozen years, I get excited when people self-describe as playing in the same space. To me “systems thinking” refers to classical definitions of a system and of systems thinking, such as:
Systems Thinking. “The ability to see the world as a complex system.” — John Sterman, 2000
I have also started to listen more carefully to what people mean about what they say and what evidence they use to show what they mean. With this listening, it seems to me that people are actually saying very different things about themselves, often with the same terms. I have heard three very different things that people mean when they say, “systems thinking.”
Focus on systemic structures. By systems thinking, some people mean that they focus on systemic structures. They primarily focus on their own node, their own system, within a larger system. They use processes like causal diagrams, rich pictures, and systems archetypes to describe their part of the system, its causes, and what they can do about it. You can find hundreds of examples here, where I too have published. This focus on systemic structures that are very close to their own node in the larger system seems to correlate with what I have observed to be segregating design, where everyone in the larger system tends to focus on their own local dynamics, irrespective of what others in the system are thinking or doing.
Focus on systemic decision structures. By systems thinking, other people mean that they focus on a set of interrelated decision structures. They primarily focus on how the decisions influencing their own node are influenced by multiple stakeholders who are each making decisions about their own nodes. They use quantitative modeling processes like system dynamics (see my dengue modeling) and qualitative strategic modeling processes like my own GRASP and Strategic Clarity processes, often coupled with the “systemic structures” processes described above. With these processes, they try to see the whole, how each stakeholder contributes to causes of the problem, and how to partner around what each stakeholder could do to shift the behavior of the whole system. This focus on systemic decision structures around their own nodes and those of related stakeholders seems to correlate with what I see as flocking design, where people and groups within a larger system pay attention to each other, reacting to each other’s movements, with the focus still primarily on one’s own resilience.
Focus on systemic agreement structures. By systems thinking, yet other people mean that they focus on both the underlying and surface-level structures of agreements that determine the systemic decision structures. They primarily focus on how deeper structures of embedded agreements influence the system of decisions that each stakeholder consciously or unconsciously accepts in their interactions within a system. They use processes of co-hosting collaboration to decide together what their deeper shared purpose is within the stakeholders of a larger system, seeing what the requisite unique contributions are from each stakeholder, and together developing creative possibilities that they then leverage and tangibilize together, using processes like the Harmonic Vibrancy Move Process. This focus on systemic agreement structures seems to correlate with what I observe to be uniting design, where people come together to redefine the underlying agreements that shape their system, the experience they have, the outcomes they achieve, and the resilience of the impacts they achieve.
So, the next time someone tells you they are a systems thinker, I invite you to perk up your ears, listen a little closer, and ask questions. Look for the evidence of what they actually mean. Are they focusing on (1) systemic structures to improve segregating designs, (2) systemic decision structures to support flocking designs, or (3) systemic agreement structures to co-develop uniting designs? Those few moments of extra inquiry and evidence gathering might tell you a lot about what they actually mean.