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Systems Thinking

Systems Thinking

Information alone is not enough for problem-solving, it requires thinking to make sense of it all. It is through thinking that we find patterns, associate, abstract, recognize gaps and eventually gain knowledge. We constantly create and shape mental models from information we're exposed to, through our senses, emotions and reasoning.

A common approach towards problem-solving is something like this: Identify > data collection > evaluate options > decide on implementation > execution. Even though this works in some situations, it is unaware of feedback-loops, changing requirements and changes in the system.

Systems-thinking on the other hand takes a holistic approach that focuses on the way that a system's constituent parts interrelate and how systems work over time and within the context of larger systems. A system is then defined as a set of interconnected parts sharing a common purpose, and the performance of is affected by all of its parts.

But what is thinking anyway? We can define a few characteristics.


In simple terms, making distinctions means acknowledging the differences between things. For instance, we distinguish between a car and a bicycle, a hat and a helmet, or a lion and a wasp. While there may be instances where they share a common category, the defining traits that set them apart often determine the category's usefulness and purpose within a larger system. Distinction is not limited to individual objects; it also applies to the categories they belong to.


Being able to change perspective is an important skill for creative thinking, as it allows us to see things in new and different ways. This can help us come up with fresh ideas and solutions to problems that we may not have considered before. This can be thought of as just a human, personal perspective, but often it is more than that. It is not just personal, there are many more perspectives possible, like for example a computer-program could label a million books as 'a small amount' while for humans it is more than we could ever read. Perspectives can change based on technology, culture, law, history, size, etc. Creative thinking is usually about applying a new perspective, which results in renewed categorization. Therefore, knowing how to change perspective can be a useful technique to stimulate creativity and novelty.

Order and limit

When it comes to thinking, one important aspect is how we organize parts into a system. A system consists of parts that are interconnected and function together, resulting in hierarchies where one part may be more important than another, based on how many other parts it affects. It's important to note that in a system, there are many dynamic hierarchies that can be identified.

One common mistake people make is seeing the "big thing" as the top of the hierarchy, with its parts lower in hierarchy. However, the systems-thinking approach turns this on its head because the parts are actually the most essential in the structure of the system.

Systems can be incredibly complex, connecting millions of parts on many levels, and they often do not operate in a vacuum. Identifying the purpose of a system involves recognizing its boundaries. For example, if you want to irrigate your lawn, what systems are involved? The water used is part of many systems, such as your local water infrastructure, which is part of a regional water system that depends on seasonal rainfall, which is in part related to our planet's rotation in the universe. However, a system has a function and purpose, which means that when defining the system that describes "irrigating a lawn," it is clearly limited to the location - the house.

Recognizing the system involves zooming out, whereas identifying the parts often involves zooming in. The reductionist approach of identifying individual parts differs from the first-principles thinking in the sense that using the first-principles approach involves attempting to reason about the part by knowing its fundamental truths and organizing the system from the ground up. The breakdown of parts can result in strikingly different conclusions than those generated by traditional forms of analysis, especially when what is being studied is dynamically complex or has a great deal of feedback from other sources.


How the parts interact in a system is called the relation. There are different type of relations in such systems: cause and effect, action-reaction, feedback, friendship, conceptual. Recognizing interconnection of the parts is essential in both analysis and problem-solving. For example, in family-systems-therapy, the whole family as seen as the system, the parts are obviously the family-members, but the task for a therapist is to identify the relations and dynamics between members and the feedback-loops that occur.

Understanding the relations between different parts can help to think creatively and unlock solutions. A method that uses this is the free-association technique for creative thinking. The process is to write down a word relating to the problem, then another and another. Participant says whatever comes into his mind relative to a word he just wrote (serial association) or relative to a key word (centered association) of a problem. Creating a semantic relationship between every word from the obtained list of associations and the problem might help to find useful analogy, which contains creative ideas and could lead to solutions.

In the reductionist approach of analysis, the individual parts and its functions are identified, which has resulted many discoveries in science, like how atoms work, or DNA. The issue with this approach however, is that relations between interconnected elements get ignored. The more interconnected a system is, the more this becomes an issue. Examples where this often becomes a problem are research regarding pharmaceutical, climate, nutrition, economics, ... or any complex, dynamic system.