The development of systems thinking took off with the landmark book General Systems Theory (Ludwig von Bertalanffy, 1 januari 1969) written by Ludwig von Bertalanffy. The goal was to develop an all-encompassing systems theory to serve as a basis for interdisciplinary research. Systems thinking is the ability to understand and intervene in complex systems. A system is comprised of elements, which can also be called parts, entities, persons, and components. The elements are interconnected, i.e., they are related to each other. The crucial aspect of systems thinking is the necessity to understand a system’s behavior as a whole. The behavior cannot be deduced from its constituting elements alone. It is because of the element’s interconnectedness that new properties emerge. This is reflected in the famous quote about systems thinking.
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
To illustrate this quote, take for example an aircraft. It is a complex system having many parts such as fuselage, wings, engines, and landing gear. When these parts are assembled in the right way, the desirable property of being able to fly emerges. The parts in itself do not have this emergent property, that is, an engine and the other parts as well cannot fly on their own.
In the original conception of systems thinking, now called the hard systems approach or first-order cybernetics, a system has a purpose reflected in transforming some input to some output as depicted in the figure below. A system has a boundary, which separates the system from its environment. Which elements are regarded as inside the system, and which are not, is largely a matter of what is considered the system’s purpose. For instance, is a pilot part of the aircraft system or not? The answer is of course, that depends. It depends on the purpose of investigating the aircraft system. On the one hand, if the purpose is simply to investigate the flying characteristics of the aircraft, then the pilot is not necessarily part of the system, instead he is part of the environment. On the other hand, if the purpose is an inquiry into transportation of goods and persons, then the pilot is part of the system because of his crucial role to steer and navigate the aircraft. (Perhaps in the future we can replace a pilot by a subsystem comprised of AI algorithms, but this is really replacing one (human) subsystem for a computerized one.).
Systems thinking is an anti-reductionism approach, which makes it different from more traditional research approaches that study elements in isolation. The reasoning goes if all the elements are understood in isolation, then the whole is understood as well. Systems thinking takes the interconnectedness between elements into account. This has far reaching consequences because due to the interconnectedness the difference between cause and effect becomes obscured. An element may have an effect on another element, which on its turn have an effect on yet another element, and eventually may have an effect on the first element that seems to have started the cause of events in the first place. But due to this circularity, it is impossible to pinpoint the exact element that really caused a particular effect, because there isn’t one.
Systems thinking assumes reflexive domains, meaning that elements are part of the same domain and act and react on each other. First-order cybernetics studied the nature of these feedback loops in great detail. In particular the role of negative feedback was investigated. A well-known example is the thermostat that keeps the temperature in a room between preset limits. If the temperature is too low, the heater is turned on. If it is too high, the heater is turned off. So, the real, measured temperature is fed back to a control unit that calculates the difference, hence the phrase negative feedback, between the desired and measured temperature. The difference in temperature is then used to steer the heater.
Zelf hiervoor een plaatje maken, met alleen de heater (en dus niet de vriezer).
Statement: A system as a whole is comprised of parts. Systems thinking is about understanding the interactions between the parts.
Aspect: Systems Thinking, Principle: Create room for change, Principle page: Principles and Ground Rules
|Hard Systems Thinking – System Dynamics||A system comprised of a number of interacting feedback loops is a complex system whose behavior can surprise us.|
|Systems Thinking||A system as a whole is comprised of parts. Systems thinking is about understanding the interactions between the parts.|
Principles, aspects and statements overview
- Create room for change, defined in page: Principles and Ground Rules
- Systems Thinking, defined in page: Principles and Ground Rules
- Hard Systems Thinking – System Dynamics (A system comprised of a number of interacting feedback loops is a complex system whose behavior can surprise us.)
- Systems Thinking (A system as a whole is comprised of parts. Systems thinking is about understanding the interactions between the parts.)
- Critical Reflection, defined in page: Principles and Ground Rules
- Determine the right direction, defined in page: Principles and Ground Rules
- Cultural Identity, defined in page: Principles and Ground Rules
- Investigating Identity (Group identity refers to a person’s sense of belonging to a particular group.)
- Research Philosophy and Process (Research approach must be “for you, and with you”, instead of “for you, but not with you”.)
- Right Things, defined in page: Principles and Ground Rules
- Co-dependency, defined in page: Principles and Ground Rules
- Ethics of Care, defined in page: Principles and Ground Rules
- Investigating Identity (Ethics of Care is a retreat to first principles to be part of a group to protect and to provide meaning.)
- Responsible Setting for Social Innovation (Each stakeholder facilitates other stakeholders in addressing a societal challenge.)
- Some-thing from No-thing (We rely on each other and therefore we should care for each other.)
- We got to move, defined in page: Principles and Ground Rules
- Reflexive Domain, defined in page: Principles and Ground Rules
- Exploring Change (The constant factor in life is movement.)
- Self-Reference in a Three-Valued System (Embrace the paradox, i.e., a difference in what was previously stated and therefore contradicting what was said before. Differences keep setting things in motion. Without differences we cease to exist. Therefore, change is inevitable, in fact, it is a necessity for living.)
- The Autopoietic Turn (Humans and social systems operate autonomously and my react when irritated.)
- Tradition, defined in page: Principles and Ground Rules
- Diversity in opinions, defined in page: Principles and Ground Rules
- Worldview, defined in page: Principles and Ground Rules
- Model Building - Human Activity Systems (The PQR formula (what, how, why) is pivotal for capturing worldviews.)
- Model Building - Human Activity Systems (A worldview (Weltanschauung) captures the beliefs, desires and intentions of a person.)
- Soft Systems Thinking – Soft Systems Methodology (People differ in worldviews, but nevertheless they typically adhere to aspects of multiple worldviews, which provides room for accommodation.)
A system consists of elements and relations. The number of elements and relations to consider tend to become quite large for complex systems. To tame the complexity, there are basically two options to consider, and these two options can be combined.
The first option is to decompose a system into a number of sub-systems, and sub-systems can in their turn be decomposed as well, and so on. Each sub-system has a boundary to separate it from its environment. Therefore, sibling sub-systems are part of a sub-system’s environment. As a rule of thumb, a sub-system should contain 7 ± 2 elements. The “7 ± 2” rule stems from Miller (Miller, G. A., 1 januari 1956) who studied the limits of human capacity to process information. In principle, the number of objects an average human can hold in short-term memory is 7 ± 2. However, limiting the number of elements in sub-systems is not sufficient for reducing complexity. The “strong cohesion – low coupling” rule should be applied as well. This rule states that the elements in a sub-system should cohere in the sense that they belong together and have strong ties, whereas the coupling with elements residing in other sub-systems should be kept to a minimum. In this way, it is easier to comprehend a sub-systems behavior, and if needed, to adapt it with minimal effects on other sub-systems.
The second option is to reduce the number of aspects to consider. The system elements are interconnected with all kind of relations. By taking only a few aspects into account, the complexity of a system can be reduced. For instance, if we want to look at the world from a financial point of view, a financial system can be devised that considers cash flow between elements only. A system conceived this way is called an aspect-system.
The division of a system in sub-systems and aspect-systems are abstraction mechanisms to ignore irrelevant details that obscure rather than reveal a system’s behavior from a particular point of view. It should be kept in mind, however, that the very idea of systems thinking is its anti-reductionism stance. A system can only be understood in how the parts relate to the whole, and vice versa. Nevertheless, sub-systems and aspect-systems do help in taming complexity, but the whole should not get out of sight.
It is important to note that second-order cybernetics eventually reached another system concept in which the notion of purpose and input-output transformation was replaced by the concept of self-observing and self-producing systems. These are systems that reproduce themselves from their own elements, which is the case for all living organisms. The purpose of a system is then simply to reproduce. Also, the hard systems approach evolved in soft and critical systems approaches in which the opinions of the stakeholders are taken into account. But these two approaches retained essentially the original system concept of purpose and input-output transformation.
In this book, besides second-order cybernetics, the traditional hard, soft and critical systems thinking approaches are discussed. The latter three are named as the first, second, and third wave, respectively. A fourth wave is emerging, which is called DSRP Theory. DSRP stands for Distinctions, Systems, Relationships, Perspectives. Although DSRP theory is not discussed here, for interested readers its uniting concepts are worth exploring.
The current state of affairs in systems thinking is collected in the two following books: Systems Approaches to Managing Change: A Practical Guide, recently updated in a second edition (Martin Reynolds and Sue Holwell, 1 maart 2020), and Critical Systems Thinking and the Management of Complexity (Michael C. Jackson, 1 maart 2019). These two books cover a lot of ground, including complexity theory and the essentials of design thinking.
- DSRP Theory - A Primer, Derek Cabrera and Laura Cabrera, 2 maart 2022.
- General Systems Theory, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, George Braziller, Inc., 1 januari 1969.
- Systems Approaches to Making Change: A Practical Guide, Martin Reynolds and Sue Holwell, 2nd ed., Springer, 1 maart 2020.
- Systems Approaches to Managing Change: A Practical Guide, Martin Reynolds and Sue Holwell, Editors, Springer, The Open University UK, 1 januari 2010.
- Critical Systems Thinking and the Management of Complexity; Creative Holism for Managers, Michael C. Jackson, John Wiley And Sons Ltd, 1 maart 2019.
- The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information, Miller, G. A., Psychological Review. 63 (2): 81–97., 1 januari 1956.