Tuesday, January 17th, 2017

Whole-Systems Thinking

“You can’t solve problems with the same thinking that created those problems.” -Albert Einstein

Whole-systems thinking -  or just ‘systems thinking’ -  is a method of analysis and decision-making that looks at the interrelationships of the constituent parts of a system rather than narrowly focusing on the parts themselves. By incorporating a range of perspectives, conditions, connections and capabilities into a dynamic analysis, practitioners of systems thinking often reach dramatically different conclusions than those who construct ‘solutions’ from within a limited range of focus.

Why is whole-systems thinking important? Because most of the problems we face as a society represent a set of interrelated components in broader, more complex systems. These problems cannot be solved in isolation apart from their impacts on the rest of the system; and the attempt to craft  isolated solutions only leads to greater problems elsewhere. In a very real way, it is this old approach to problem-solving that has created the perilous predicament in which we find ourselves today. Whole-systems thinking, by contrast, mimics the behavior of natural systems, which adapt to changing conditions in a flow based on outcomes that benefit the whole. It is important to stress that whole-systems thinking is a methodology, not an ideology. It is process-based rather than prescriptive. Its goal is resilience and adaptation rather than the achievement of a defined set of goods.

In the “Education for Sustainability” portion of The Center for Ecoliteracy’s website, we found a terrific little article that describes systems thinking in clear, simple terms:

In Science for All Americans, the American Association for the Advancement of Science defines a “system” simply as “any collection of things that have some influence on each other….The things can be almost anything, including objects, organisms, machines, processes, ideas, numbers, or organizations. Thinking of a collection of things as a system draws our attention to what needs to be included among the parts to make sense of it, to how its parts interact with one another, and to how the system as a whole relates to other systems.”

Individual “things” (plants, people, schools, watersheds) are themselves systems, and are not sustainable separate from the larger systems in which they exist. The Center for Ecoliteracy recognizes that learning to think systemically is critical to education for sustainability. One of the ways that teachers and schools teach systemic thinking is to model it themselves.

Shifts in Perception

According to Fritjof Capra, systems thinking requires thinking in terms of relationships, connectedness, and context. Thinking systemically also requires several shifts in perception, which lead in turn to different ways to teach, and different ways to organize society:

From parts to the whole

Systems are integrated wholes whose properties cannot be reduced to those of smaller parts. Their “systemic” properties are properties of the whole which are possessed by none of the parts. The nature and quality of what students learn is strongly affected by the culture of the whole school, not just the individual classroom. This shift in perception can also lead to moving from curricula based on single subject matters to integrated curricula.

From objects to relationships

An ecosystem is not just a collection of species, but is a community. Communities, whether ecosystems or human systems, are made up of sets, or networks, of relationships. In the systems view, the “objects” of study are networks of relationships. Organizations, including schools, that adopt this perspective are more likely to emphasize relationship-based processes such as cooperation and decision-making by consensus.

From objective knowledge to contextual knowledge

Shifting focus from the parts to the whole implies shifting from analytical thinking to contextual thinking. Since explaining things in terms of their contexts means explaining them in terms of their environments, all systems thinking is environmental thinking. This shift sometimes results in schools’ focusing on project-based learning instead of prescriptive curricula. It also encourages teachers to serve as facilitators and fellow learners alongside students, rather than as experts dispensing knowledge.

From quantity to quality

Through much of the history of Western science, many of its practitioners have maintained that only things that can be measured and quantified can be expressed in scientific models. It has sometimes been implied that phenomena that can be measured and quantified are more important—and perhaps even that what cannot be measured and quantified doesn’t exist at all. Relationships and context, however, cannot be put on a scale or measured with a ruler. In practice, this shift can lead to seeking more comprehensive forms of assessment besides standardized testing.

From structure to process

Living systems develop and evolve. Therefore, understanding them requires understanding renewal, change, and transformation. In practice, this shift can result in shifting emphasis to how a student solves a problem rather than on whether or not he or she gets the “right” answer. In communities, it can mean that the process for making decisions is often as important as the decisions themselves.

From contents to patterns

When we draw maps of relationships, we discover that certain configurations of relationships appear again and again. We call these configurations patterns. Instead of focusing on what a living system is made of, we study its patterns. This shift leads to discovering that understanding how a pattern works in one natural or social system helps us to understand other systems that manifest the same pattern.

PathTree’s unique approach to systems thinking provides powerful tools for assessing the current and emerging conditions surrounding us. It shows us how to map our personal connections and capabilities – those we may already have and those we might need to develop – as we strive to build resilient life-capital. Our toolset represents a variety of learning paths so you may structure an approach to best fit your situation.

The following short articles from our blog, The Conversation, may be helpful in understanding systems thinking at a deeper level.

Understanding Systems

A system can be defined as an integrated set of elements that perform a desired function. Although systems vary in complexity, they all share some basic elements. A stock flows into the system and is subject to some form of control, such as rate or temperature. The stock is then catalyzed or depleted in some form, which results in an outflow from the system, usually in the form of energy. At the same… [Read more]

Understanding Scales

All systems operate at scale, and all scales are relational.  One of the first steps in making use of whole-systems thinking is understanding scales and your relationship to them.  We propose four scales: the “Me” scale, the “My” scale, the “Us/Them” scale, and the “One” or global scale. The “Me” Scale The “Me” scale refers to… [Read more]

Understanding Shocks

Every system exists and operates in a wider context characterized by ever-changing conditions. Automobiles, for instance, operate on roads that may be bumpy or smooth. Thermostats monitor temperatures that alternate between warm and cold. Cell phones are tapped, dropped, tossed, and sometimes submerged. A political system is shaped by scandal, war, or the economy. Your body’s endocrine system encounters carrots… [Read more]

Understanding Flow

As those who adopt PathTree’s unique approach to whole-systems thinking will find, we talk about achieving ‘flow’ as one of the goals of practicing the thinking. But it’s important to reflect on what ‘flow’ is, and what it is not. First of all, flow isn’t apathy. It doesn’t denote a withdrawal from the world. Quite the contrary, [Read more]

Understanding Conditions

Until now, our brief explanations of systems, scales, shocks, and flow have been little more than table-setting. With conditions, we begin to move into the heart of whole-systems thinking, which is all about assessing conditions, mapping connections and capabilities, and achieving life-capital in a flow with change. As we noted in our discussion of shocks, systems exist and operate within a broader… [Read more]

Understanding Connections

“The systems view looks at the world in terms of relationships and integration” -Fritjof Capra Okay, now we probe to the very core of systems thinking: connectivity.  You’ll recall that in our first discussion, we defined a system as “an integrated set of elements that perform a desired function.” That’s not the only definition of a system, but it shares with all… [Read more]