Systems thinking is, in its most generalized sense, a way of seeing the world. Before anything it places great emphasis on the question of how do we see the world, that is to say, our subjective interpretation of events. Human beings are not infinitely knowing creatures; we have a limited set of sensory and cognitive capabilities with which to interpret events. This limitation manifests itself in the fact that our attention is always limited and we are continuously using many assumptions to rapidly draw conclusions. From the systems thinking perspective, it is seen as paramount to gain an awareness to what those limitations are and how they work.
At the heart of systems thinking is a recognition of this subjectivity. That is the recognition that how the world appears to us is not merely in some objective form, but in fact, our conceptual system structures, defines and interprets every piece of information and endeavor we undertake, whether in science, management, engineering or everyday life. It is precisely because of this, systems thinking would posit, that any serious endeavor needs first to understand the structure and makeup of the paradigm that is being used.
This is in contrast to the more analytical paradigm that posits that the world is largely objective it simply exists, and we just need to go and discover how it works. Here, little reference is made to the assumptions and overall paradigm used to understand the world. The main emphasis is simply on building models with which to understand some objective reality.
Systems thinking would put forward the idea that the subjective dimension of how we interpret events is just as important as objective inquiry. That if we do not understand the subjective process of reasoning we have no way of knowing if they are valid or invalid. Whether what we “know” is based upon a coherent and sound set of assumptions or is in fact based upon a weak or even misleading set of assumptions.
Systems thinking then puts a much stronger emphasis on self-awareness, where awareness is the ability to know directly and to perceive, to feel, or to be conscious of events, objects, thoughts, emotions, or sensory patterns. Awareness of one’s own way of seeing the world and the process through which we reason is seen as a prerequisite to effective cognitive capacities. This again can be contrasted with a more analytical approach, where one’s paradigm is rarely brought into direct question. Self-awareness of how we reason and the assumptions within it typically are not questioned. In this sense we can understand systems thinking as a form of meta-language in that one of its explicit aims is to help individuals to understand their processes of reasoning and how our actions – and the world they create – lead directly from how we reason.
David Bohm, the 20th-century theoretical physicist talks about this as such, “the reason that we don’t see our problems is that the means by which we try to solve them are the source. That may seem strange to someone who has first heard it because our whole culture prides itself on thought as its highest achievement and the achievements of thought I am not trying to say are negligible. There are very great achievements in technology and various other ways, in culture. But there’s another side to it… one of the obvious things wrong with it is fragmentation, thought is breaking things up into bits which should not be broken up. We can see this going on, the world is broken up into nations, yet the world is all one, and you see with the nation we have the boundary of the nation, we have established the boundary of a nation, now that is invented by thought. If you go to the edge of the nation there is nothing there particularly, unless somebody made a fence.”
This quote illustrates well how our way of thinking creates the world around us and ultimately how it creates the problems that we encounter. Before anything, it is in understand those processes of reason and the paradigm that conditions our way of seeing things that we have the greatest chance to make a difference and gain a deeper understand of the world around us.
Cognition is a very demanding exercise and thus it makes sense for us to use preconceptions and assumptions to limit the demand on this energy expensive exercise. These tools, of preconception and assumption-based reasoning, are an important form of abstraction, but we need to be able to use them instead of them using us. To be an effective thinker is to understand the dynamics of the conceptual system that we are using and this gives one the capacity to use it in a professional manner to generate knowledge, instead of it using us as we simply react to our preconceptions.
Our tacit assumption is that we are in control of our thought processes and how we see the world. The Enlightenment gave us the conception of the rational individual the idea that humans are endowed with the capability of abstract thought, that modern humans are rational and calculating, that we use our intellectual capability in a purposefully way.
However, over the past thirty years or so, as this idea of the rational individual has come under scrutiny within economics and the social sciences it has proven limited in scope. Humans are capable of abstract reasoning but this is typically not what people do. For most people, it is both not particularly enjoyable and often a demanding exercise. More often instead we use all sorts of automatic inference processes based upon assumptions, so as to not have to reason, in this process, we are not active agents of our own thought but instead are guided by assumptions.
To be an effective thinker, one needs to hold an awareness to our set of assumptions and beliefs; understand the paradigm that we are using. One needs to be aware of the assumptions that one is using and be able to adjust them when needed. To use concepts and processes of reasoning like a professional uses her tools, not letting those tools use us, which is often the case.
David Bohm again puts this well when he says “there is this feeling when you are thinking something it does nothing except inform you of the way things are and then you choose to do something. That is the way people are talking, but the way you think determines the way you are going to do it, and then you don’t notice a result comes back but you don’t see it as a result of what you have done, even less do you see it as a result of how you were thinking. Unless the thinking changes it won’t be correct… unless we see the source of it, it will never change we need some kind of awareness of what thought is doing let’s put it that way, that seems clear, but which we don’t have generally speaking.” Systems thinking recognizes that it is before anything how we think that creates the world we live in. Thus systems thinking is primarily concerned with the metacognitive skills that are required to understand, appraise and uses thinking effectively.
So this is where we start with the systems thinking journey, it is to say how do I see the world? What is my set of assumptions, beliefs, and values? And then to go out into the world and notice, not judge, not tell yourself off about it, but just notice how the way that you see the world affects how you act in the world, the ways in which your worldview influences and decides what you are going pay attention to, and also decides what you’re not going to pay attention to, thus shaping your perceptional all day every day.
1. The Schumacher Institute (2014). Introduction to Systems Thinking, Part 1 - How do we view the world? (with Martin Sandbrook). YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SH94PMHPZW8&spfreload=5&ab_channel=TheSchumacherInstitute [Accessed 21 Sep. 2020].
2. The Schumacher Institute (2014). Introduction to Systems Thinking, Part 1 - How do we view the world? (with Martin Sandbrook). YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SH94PMHPZW8&spfreload=5&ab_channel=TheSchumacherInstitute [Accessed 21 Sep. 2020].
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