Systems Thinking Overview
Systems thinking is a paradigm or method of reasoning that focuses upon the interconnections between things and their context within the integrated whole that they are a part of. It represents an alternative to our traditional scientific method of reasoning called analysis that functions through the breaking down of complex phenomena into small parts. Systems thinking instead uses the method of synthesis to reason upwards from the given subject matter to understand its function within the environment it is a part of.
Systems thinking is a way of describing the world in a holistic manner based on the model of a system. It tries to look at whole systems. By understanding the whole system, the other elements within it, and its relationship to them, we can understand what uniquely defines the thing we are interested in. This is why systems thinking is also called holistic thinking because it starts with an understanding of the whole and works backward to understand the individual elements. Once we have this context of understanding the element’s function, we can apply the model of a system to identify its inputs and outputs and reason about its efficiency.
Synthesis & Analysis
We can understand the world as things, that is, parts or components, and their relations, that is, how they are connected or fit together. Take a car for example. It is made up of parts, car parts such as engine, wheels and so on, and these parts are put together or organized in a specific way so as to make them function as a vehicle of transportation. A group of things that are not organized in this way is a set. So we would call a group of cups on a table a set of cups because unlike the parts to our car they have not been designed to serve some collective function. Because the group of cups is simply the sum of its parts, we would describe them by describing the individual properties of each cup, and this would tell us everything we needed to know about them.
This approach to describing things is called analysis or reductionism. Reductionism is the traditional approach taken within modern science that tries to describe complex phenomena in terms of their individual parts. Now take the human body that is highly organized through a complex set of relations between its parts. Out of the arrangement of these parts in a specific way we get the overall functioning of a living organism. Because the parts are so strongly defined by their connections and function within the body as an entirety, to properly describe the parts we need to first understand the functioning of the whole body. This approach to describing things, that is, that we can best describe things by understanding their place within the function of the whole that they are a part of, is called synthesis; synthesis is the foundation of systems thinking.
Analysis is interested in describing the individual components while syntheses looks at the relationship between these components and their functioning as a whole. To illustrate this, we could take the example of designing a car. If a car manufacturing company employed us to design their next great model, we could take two different approaches to this problem, applying analytical thinking or systems thinking. If we approached the problem from a traditional perspective, we would start by analyzing the car and looking for ways to optimizes it. We might come up with a design that minimizes the car’s drag by reducing its height by a few centimeters to increase its fuel efficiency.
If one was to apply systems thinking to this problem, we would start by identifying the car’s function, that is, personal transportation, and the system it is a part of, the transportation system. From this perspective, we might not even need to design a new car, but end up designing some services that connect pre-existing resources to provide the same desired functionality. From this example, we can see how systems thinking is often employed when the current paradigm or way of doing things has reached its limit and gives us a fresh perspective on things.
Systems thinking is the beginning of another closely related area called systems theory. That goes on to give us a whole suite of tools for analysis and modeling systems and their interaction and dynamics as they evolve over time. Systems thinking is an emerging paradigm within many areas from science to engineering and business management, that presents an alternative to our traditional modern analytical methods of inquiry by emphasizing the need for a more holistic and contextualized understanding of the world.
The key characteristics of systems thinking include; a focus on relations over components; divergent over convergent thinking, exploring full space of possibility; holistic contextualization over analysis of individual properties; model of a system is thought to be universally applicable; focus on dynamics over a static view of the world; open systems, where nothing can be fully understood in isolation; systems are defined by the function they perform as opposed to the properties of their component.
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