Systems Thinking


A process of understanding of the interactivity of elements and things in a given environment is described as systems thinking. System thinking is the view that things influence each other in nature and work together to survive or perish. Systems thinking is clearly demonstrated in organizations where people, processes, and structures must work together to achieve certain goals. This paper is a discussion of systems thinking and systems change in a large system such as a public or private sector.

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Everything that occurs in the world can be said to happen within the context of a particular system. In order to give out results, a system must accept input upon which it acts through subsystems. One of the most significant aspects of environmental interaction is to understand how systems function within a particular context in order to achieve the desired results. The understanding of what constitutes a system is important insofar as system functionalities are concerned. There are many ways to view a system. However, according to Gharajedaghi, a better view could be drawn from the understanding of the elements or parts that form a system. Some of these might be systems by themselves, or overlapping systems that are bounded in space and time. This paper provides an overview of systems thinking and systems change. It particularly provides a discussion on systems thinking between larger systems as well as a strategy to support systems change through improvement of working conditions, staff moral, and productivity. All these are done in order to achieve set goals, change opinion and policies, or even produce a certain social trend and technical innovations.

There are many ways to conceptualize a system. However, generally, Gharajedaghi defines a system as an organized collection of parts, or sub-systems, which are integrated in a given manner in order to accomplish a given goal. To achieve this goal, different inputs must be available through the involved processes in order to achieve the desired output. The nature of a system is that a slight change in any of the parts or elements that form up a system will lead to a change in the overall functioning of the system. Systems can be simple or complex depending on the number of elements or processes that are involved. One of the complex systems is the social systems which have sub-systems that are arranged in hierarchies with defined boundaries and yet must interact in the environment as an open system. Similarly, the American Association for the Advancement of Science defines a system as a collection of things that influence each other in their functionality. It includes plants, people, communities, watersheds, and schools, which all interrelate with one another within the context of an environmental setup. As such, it is easier to understand the larger systems like the public and private sector each of which consists of their smaller systems components that make them up.

Systems Thinking

In order to provide solutions to problems that are presented within the context of a system, it is important to examine different elements/parts that form up the larger system. This kind of approach is described as systems thinking. According to Boardman Sauser; it is an approach that seeks to provide solutions to problems by viewing them as smaller elements of the overall system. Systems thinking espouses that provision of solutions should not be informed by reactionary measures to the specific parts of the system, events, or outcomes. Such parts have the potential to contribute to the development of none anticipated consequences. It is also described as a set of habits and behaviors that act within a framework founded on the notion that components elements of a system can be understood well in the context of the linkage with each other and other systems. Therefore, systems thinking posit that in order to understand the functionality of a system, the conceptualization of a system, regardless of its size, must be within the concept of relationships as opposed to isolation. Thus, it focuses on cyclical as opposed to linear cause and effect of problems.

Systems thinking can be implemented through the use of various resources which might interact in order to bring out the desired results. One of the concepts is the operational thinking that seeks to align the kind of thinking with the occurrences already within the system. For instance, private sector practice is rather a modern concept when compared to the public sector practice. Therefore, in order to achieve synchrony in the implementation of system process, the private sector must align to the operational thinking within their systems that seeks to adapt some of the favorable processes within the public practice. In the same way, private practice is dynamic in its components of the system. There are also smaller systems including technology and human resources that form the larger private sector social system.

The other key component of systems thinking is the dynamic way of thinking. It simply involves looking at the most recurrent patterns in the way things operate over a given period of time and coming up with suggestions based on these patterns. Dynamic thinking as a concept also advocates for continuous observance of the larger system with a view of identifying problematic areas and finding solutions to these areas. The advantage of this concept is that it allows the problems to be based on the verifiable and identifiable elements within the system. Therefore, it provides the best solution to the problems that may exist within the system.

For example, in order to provide a long-term solution to the problem of inefficiency in the public service, dynamic thinking advocates for analyzing each entity or element that forms the public sector service. This is done for a period of time after which the problematic areas are identified before coming up with solutions. This form of systems thinking is cheaper and simple to implement but the caveat is that it addresses problems that are in small systems that form the larger public systems. Therefore, both systems are subject to fail since it is the smaller systems that form the larger one through a system of interrelationships. This means that a simple problem in one of the systems that form the large system will affect the whole system. In order to rectify it, a dynamic process must be performed again. Any simple problem will thus inconvenience the functioning of the whole system.

Moreover, systems thinking also emphasize on the concept of creativity when providing the solution to the problems that might be existing within the larger system. Creative thinking is founded on the ability to overcome obvious solutions which are likely to have adverse side effects on the larger system. Thus, it seeks to provide creative answers that circumvent the possibilities of side effects. In a social context, where interaction between the public and private forms a complex system, resources and elements for proper implementation of the system might be a limiting factor. However, through creative thinking, solutions can be provided to solve these problems of resources and improve efficiency.

One of the identifiable illustrations where creative thinking has helped in providing solutions to large and complex systems is in the development of technology tools that facilitate communication within systems such as use of mobile phones, computers, and more abstract means like the internet. Creative thinking also permeates scientific thinking as part of the system thinking concepts. Through creative thinking, scientists are able to visualize a complex system and provide solutions to the problems by looking at each element and process as well as figure out the possible outcome with particular inputs. The advantage of this kind of approach is that it can provide solutions to processes which previously were thought to be efficient in their functionality. That is, chances of serendipitous discoveries in creative thinking are very high when compared to a holistic view of the entire system as a single unit.

Systems Change and Transformation

In order to have a system change/transformation, there is a need to have acquisition of knowledge by the components that make up the system. Thus, system change is an approach that seeks to utilize verifiable information to bring changes to the way the overall system functions. System change is hinged on the premise that leaders, or at least, sub-systems, are able to subscribe to the proposed changes as a way of achieving new ways of doing things. Systems change can be implemented through fostering of community/relationships between subsystems and cultivation of networks. Through the creation of community and networks, the elements which are involved in the overall system functioning, including the people, are able to support the proposed system change or transformation to achieve the desired goals. System change can also be implemented by the realization that most systems are nested or contain smaller systems, and therefore calls for implementation of changes in a multi-level approach. As observed by Moore, public social systems contain other systems within the individual or community environment. Thus, changing the system will automatically affect the larger as well as nested systems. The challenge in this case is how to choose the correct level or levels to achieve the kind of changes that are intended.


From the discussion above, it is evident that systems thinking are a kind of approach that views a system as a composition of parts which are directly or indirectly related to each other. The approach also posits that a system operates within a given identifiable boundary even though the systems can be parallel or nested. System thinking also identifies the issue of space and time as performing an essential role in the achievement of the overall goal of the system. System change is based on better decision-making process and greater commitment to the overall goal of the larger system. Thus, there is a need for those involved in any system to look at the elements and processes that are involved in the functionality of the system.


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