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Systems Thinking

Systems Thinking

When it comes to problem-solving, mere information alone falls short—it requires the power of thinking to make sense of it all. Thinking enables us to discover patterns, make associations, abstract concepts, identify gaps, and ultimately acquire knowledge. Through our senses, emotions, and reasoning, we continually construct and mold mental models from the information we encounter.

The typical approach to problem-solving often follows a linear path:
identify the problem, gather data, evaluate options, make a decision, and execute.
While this approach may be effective in certain situations, it tends to overlook crucial elements such as feedback loops, evolving requirements, and changes within the system itself.

In contrast, systems thinking adopts a holistic perspective, emphasizing the interconnectedness of a system's constituent parts and how systems evolve over time, both independently and in relation to larger systems. A system is defined as a collection of interconnected parts that share a common purpose, with the performance of the system being influenced by the interactions among all its components.

But what exactly is thinking? Let's outline a few defining characteristics.


At its core, making distinctions involves recognizing and appreciating the differences that exist between things. We can easily distinguish between a car and a bicycle, a hat and a helmet, or even a lion and a wasp. While there may be instances where these entities share a common category, it is the distinct traits that truly define their uniqueness and establish their relevance within a broader system.

Distinction goes beyond individual objects—it extends to the categories or groups to which these objects belong. By discerning the characteristics that differentiate one category from another, we gain a deeper understanding of their purpose and value within the larger framework.

Making distinctions allows us to navigate and comprehend the world around us more effectively. It provides us with a means to classify and organize our experiences, enabling us to make informed decisions, recognize patterns, and grasp the intricacies of complex systems.


The ability to shift perspectives is a valuable skill when it comes to fostering creative thinking. It enables us to view things from fresh and unconventional angles, opening doors to new ideas and innovative problem-solving approaches. While we often associate perspective with our own individual viewpoint, it encompasses much more than that. Perspectives extend beyond the personal realm, encompassing diverse lenses influenced by technology, culture, law, history, scale, and more.

Consider, for instance, how a computer program might label a million books as "a small amount," while humans perceive it as an overwhelming quantity beyond our reading capacity. Perspectives can vary significantly based on these factors, influencing how we perceive and categorize information.

In the realm of creative thinking, the essence lies in adopting novel perspectives, which subsequently leads to the reevaluation and restructuring of categorization. Embracing different perspectives serves as a powerful technique to stimulate creativity and introduce fresh, innovative ideas. By actively exploring alternative viewpoints, we broaden our mental horizons and unlock new possibilities for problem-solving and originality.

Order and limit

When it comes to thinking, an essential element revolves around how we organize various components into a coherent system. A system comprises interconnected parts that function together, giving rise to hierarchies where certain parts hold greater significance based on their influence on other components. It's crucial to recognize that within a system, numerous dynamic hierarchies can be identified.

A common misconception is perceiving the "big thing" as the pinnacle of the hierarchy, with smaller parts occupying lower positions. However, the systems-thinking approach challenges this notion by highlighting that the parts themselves are fundamental to the structure of the system.

Systems can be extraordinarily intricate, interconnecting millions of parts across multiple levels, and they seldom operate in isolation. Understanding the purpose of a system entails defining its boundaries. For instance, consider the act of irrigating your lawn. What systems come into play? The water utilized is part of various interconnected systems, such as the local water infrastructure, which is part of a broader regional water system influenced by seasonal rainfall, which, in turn, relates to our planet's place in the universe. However, when defining a system, we must identify its specific function and purpose, meaning that in the case of "irrigating a lawn," the system's scope is clearly limited to simply the garden.

Recognizing the characteristics of a system necessitates zooming out, gaining a broader perspective, while identifying its individual parts often involves zooming in, delving into the specifics. The reductionist approach of isolating individual parts differs from the first-principles thinking, which involves reasoning about a part by understanding its fundamental truths and constructing the system from the ground up. Breaking down the parts can lead to remarkably different conclusions compared to traditional forms of analysis, particularly when studying dynamically complex phenomena or systems that receive extensive feedback from other sources.


Relations are the lifeblood of systems, defining how the various parts interact and influence one another. These relationships can take various forms, such as cause and effect, action-reaction, feedback, friendship, and conceptual connections. Recognizing interconnection of the parts is essential in both analysis and problem-solving.

For example, consider the field of family systems therapy, where the family unit is viewed as the system. While it's apparent that family members constitute the individual parts, the therapist's role is to discern the intricate relations and dynamics between them, as well as the feedback loops that shape the family system.

Recognizing the relations between different components holds the key to unlocking creativity and finding innovative solutions. One technique that harnesses this concept is the free-association technique for creative thinking. It involves writing down words related to the problem and then freely expressing thoughts and associations that come to mind. This process of creating connections between the words and the problem often leads to fresh ideas and innovative solutions.

However, there is a limitation to the reductionist approach in analysis, where the focus is solely on identifying individual parts and their functions. While this approach has led to important scientific discoveries, such as our understanding of atoms and DNA, it tends to overlook the relationships between interconnected elements. This becomes particularly problematic in highly interconnected systems. Complex, dynamic systems like pharmaceuticals, climate, nutrition, economics, and more are prime examples where this limitation becomes apparent. Ignoring these relationships can hinder our ability to fully grasp the system and find comprehensive solutions.

By recognizing the importance of relations within systems, we gain a better understanding of their intricacies and open ourselves up to new perspectives and creative problem-solving approaches. Embracing the interconnected nature of systems allows us to navigate complexity more effectively and uncover innovative solutions.