Systems Thinking - Part 1

Systems Thinking - Part 1

I just recently finished reading a book called Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Donella Meadows. It's not a new book by any stretch - the book is over 10 years old. But I found myself struggling to answer a simple question: Why haven't I heard about this before?

Now - I wouldn't say that I am aware of every mode of thinking and mental model. But this is unique enough that I would have imagined that it might have hit my radar previously.

In a nutshell, you can think of Systems thinking as a family of frameworks. You can contrast this with reductionist thinking. For example, MECE frameworks or first principle thinking would fall in the reductionist thinking family. On the other hand, Systems thinking is its own form of thinking, separate from first principles or any other reductionist thinking.

Which is what makes systems thinking so unique. In essence, it flies against many of the conventional forms of thinking and logical derivations. Instead of deriving truth with regards to the unique parts of a process or objection, you derive truth from the system as a whole. In the book, a great allegory is told that helps explain this contrast in more detail.

A long time ago, there was a monarchy where a king ruled over a kingdom of blind people. One day, to raise spirits in the kingdom, he decided to bring an elephant to the people. The blind population came from near and far - they had never heard of an elephant before, and were curious to know what it is. Given they couldn't see it, they delegated their wisest and most intelligent elders to the task of identifying what an elephant was and to communicate that to the rest of their population.

Each of the elders decided to use their best tools to break the system down. They each went to a different part of the elephant and touched a part of it to help deduce what was the issue. One elder went to the tail and deduced that the Elephant was a long linear object, likely a tool to be used to tie things together. Another elder went to the body, and felt a strong and thick outer skin, and assumed that the Elephant is likely a resource to use for making shields and other protective equipment.

Of course - all these answers are wrong. This allegory seeks to highlight the limitations of reductionist thinking in certain scenarios. Not every situation or problem is one where reductionist thinking is the best or optimal solution, and in certain instances, you need a broad perspective to understand what a thing is.

Finally, how is a system defined? Very simply put, a system is anything that has three things:

  • Elements (i.e what makes up the system)
  • Interconnections (i.e how the elements communicate with each other)
  • Function (i.e what is the purpose of the system).

If you have all three of these together you have a system. A lifeform that is living and interacting with the environment around it fulfills all three of these rules. It has elements (i.e cells and organs). It has interconnections (i.e circulation system, nervous system, brain, etc.) and finally it has a function (i.e to survive, reproduce, etc.).

Contrast that with a rock or other inanimate objects which can fulfill some of these conditions, but not all of them. For example, a rock has elements that it is comprised of, but it doesn't have interconnections between these elements, nor does it have a function.

In the coming posts, we will dig deeper into systems thinking, with a deeper look into how systems work, the different kinds of systems out there and other relevant things to know when working with systems.