Why Systems Thinking Will Help You Understand Complex Problems and Identify New Opportunities?


Tackling complex problems in an open system requires reflective thinking in a feedback loop.

Photo from Pexels

Do you know that the first tree in the history of Earth’s utopia made its debut just 300 million years ago?

That’s not even the third quarter of the Earth’s age.

As you walk through the woods, you may get the impression that the surrounding trees are all very individual, passive entities.

However, over million years, trees have evolved from a leafless, stunted, fern-like tree that first came into being over 60,000 species on Earth that extensively spread out as a linked and interconnected network.

Understanding the System as a Whole

Photo by Lukasz Szmigiel on Unsplash

In the beautifully penned down book of Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees, the author, a forester for over 30 years, unravels that trees are social beings. With observations backed up by scientific research, Wohlleben describes how trees have evolved, lived, housed, and functioned together.

Throughout their evolution, trees have developed sophisticated communication and cooperation systems that are similar to human ones.

Closely interrelated such that one element affects another constituent, the forests are a prime example of the systems theory.

This theory explains how the set of forest elements determines the system’s overall health, explained by Donella Meadows, an American environmental scientist as:

“An interconnected set of elements that are cohesively organized in a way that achieves something.”

Take, for instance, the insects. They aerate the soil, pollinate blossoms, help control pests, and decompose residues, providing a nutrient-rich layer of soil that heavily supports plant growth.

What is Systems Thinking?

Image from freepik

Systems thinking is an analysis that focuses on understanding how the parts of a system interact to produce the overall behavior.

Donella Meadows describes it as a “way of thinking that gives us the freedom to identify the root cause of problems, and see new opportunities.”

Contrary to the circular shift of systems thinking, reductionist thinking, which is linear and fragmented, will likely result in unintended consequences when applied to complex problems.

Therefore, arriving at solutions to complex problems as a new circular business models transformation or reducing our carbon footprint requires reflective thinking in a feedback loop.

In other words, it requires system thinkers that perceive relationships, untangle the interconnection of elements, and holistically analyze the system as a whole.

What is a Systems Thinker?

A systems thinker acknowledges that the relationship between components is as meaningful as the components themselves; a systems thinker can study the connections and highlight the potential dangers.

This requires a shift in mindset from linear to circular.

Here is a good example, Operation Cat Drop has become a precautionary tale to advocate for Systems Thinking. It is a lesson learned that the natural environment is intricately intertwined, which is why we need to consider an open system as a whole to work out workable solutions to problems that arise.

Operation Cat Drop: An precautionary tale of Systems Thinking

The story goes that in the late 1950s, DDT was used to eradicate Malaria-prone mosquitos in Borneo Island. However, as a result, the whole ecosystem of that area was thrown off.

Geckos were affected by the poisonous pesticide. And the cats who ate the geckos started dying off, too. This all caused the rat population to increase enormously. Everything was out of balance. There needed to be a way to fix this: And so, we have Operation Cat Drop.

According to news reports, the British Royal Air Force flew in cats to the island, dropping them by parachute, in order to restore the ecosystem balance. This story is a common example used in systems thinking education, but an important one.

The final word is, systems thinking — or a holistic picture that needs to be considered before any action is taken. And that’s for business, too.

Systems Thinking Plays a Dual Role

Challenges like tackling a deteriorating climate, ocean plastic pollution, or pollution, on the whole, are very complex. They are not merely environmental, but they also pertain to social and economic challenges.

For instance, plastic pollution is the result of several factors linking up. These include our reliance on the daily use of plastic, lack of consumer education and awareness, poor product designs, business practices and incentives, and a lack of finance or infrastructure, amongst other things.

Systems thinking has a dual role in the circular economy transformation. First, while it is an enabling tool that helps us identify root causes and devise better solutions, this approach provides us with the framework for our conceptual understanding.

“The Butterfly Effect”

The butterfly effect is a phrase to connote that small, initial changes can bring about bigger, overarching consequences.

This was deduced by Edward Lorenz, a mild-mannered meteorology professor at MIT when he realized that a tiny alteration in a rounded-off figure could drastically transform the whole pattern.

In his book, The Essence of Chaos, Lorenz clarifies that Nature’s interdependent chains of events in a system are too complex to dissect. Still, they are undoubtedly reliant on one another.

Then, in a paper published in 1972, Lorenz stated,

“If the flap of a butterfly’s wings can be instrumental in generating a tornado, it can equally well be instrumental in preventing a tornado.”.

However, the focus should be on the more significant point it evokes:

Nature is highly sensitive to tiny changes.

Final thoughts

Systems thinking recognizes the reality that despite everything being interconnected, everything can also be defined by a function, purpose, or potential in any way.

A tree’s system is defined by its bark and myriad ecosystem services such as producing oxygen, storing water, providing pulp for paper, etc. It is also dynamically connected to the ecosystem by drawing energy and nutrients from it.

Similarly, human beings enclose a complex array of organ systems that cohesively work together to keep us alive. At the same time, we are connected to the ecosystem to keep the trees alive by contributing to the resources.

System thinking is based on a shift in mindset; Essentially, everything relies upon another constituent for survival.

Where human needs food, air, and water to live, the trees need carbon dioxide and sunlight to survive. Inanimate objects like a chair need a tree to provide wood for it, while a cell phone requires electricity distribution to power it. In brief, nothing in a system can do without the other.

Systems thinking is a critical process towards a sustainable transformation.

Therefore, when tackling problems in our open system at all levels, citizens, organizations, and businesses, we must consider all components and evaluate the impact in the ecosystem before reaching a solution.

As children, we are often taught to value the consequences of our actions — a critical life lesson; do we easily forget this as adults.

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