Systems Thinking, Systems Tools, and Chaos Theory

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    Guidelines for analyzing and improving systems are included in the books Field Guide to Consulting and Organizational Development and Field Guide to Consulting and Organizational Development with Nonprofits.

    Three of the biggest breakthroughs in how we understand and successfully guide changes in ourselves, others, and organizations are systems theory, systems thinking, and systems tools. To understand how they are used, we first must understand the concept of a system.

    Many of us have an intuitive understanding of the concept. However, we need to make that intuition even more explicit in order to use systems thinking and systems tools.

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    Definitions: Systems, Systems Theory, Systems Thinking, Tools

    What’s a System?

    Adapted from the Field Guide to Consulting and Organizational Development: Collaborative and Systems Approach to Performance Change and Learning.

    One of the biggest breakthroughs in how we understand and guide change in organizations is systems theory and systems thinking. To understand how they are used in organizations, we first must understand a system. Many of us have an intuitive understanding of the term. However, we need to make the understanding explicit in order to use systems thinking and systems tools in organizations.

    Simply put, a system is an organized collection of parts (or subsystems) that are highly integrated to accomplish an overall goal. The system has various inputs, which go through certain processes to produce certain outputs, which together, accomplish the overall desired goal for the system. So a system is usually
    made up of many smaller systems, or subsystems. For example, an organization is made up of many administrative and management functions, products, services, groups, and individuals. If one part of the system is changed, the nature of the overall system is often changed, as well — by definition then, the system is systemic, meaning relating to, or affecting, the entire system.

    (This is not to be confused with systematic, which can mean merely that something is methodological. Thus, methodological thinking — systematic thinking — does not necessarily mean systems thinking.)

    Systems range from simple to complex. There are numerous types of systems. For example, there are biological systems (for example, the heart), mechanical systems (for example, a thermostat), human/mechanical systems (for example, riding a bicycle), ecological systems (for example, predator/prey), and social systems (for example, groups, supply and demand and also friendship).

    Complex systems, such as social systems, are comprised of numerous subsystems, as well. These subsystems are arranged in hierarchies, and integrated to accomplish the overall goal of the overall system. Each subsystem has its own boundaries of sorts and includes various inputs, processes, outputs, and outcomes geared to accomplish an overall goal for the subsystem. Complex systems usually interact with their environments and are, thus, open systems.

    A high-functioning system continually exchanges feedback among its various parts to ensure that they remain closely aligned and focused on achieving the goal of the system. If any of the parts or activities in the system seem weakened or misaligned, the system makes necessary adjustments to more effectively achieve its goals.

    A pile of sand is not a system. If you remove a sand particle, you have still got a pile of sand. However, a functioning car is a system. Remove the carburetor and you no longer have a working car.

    Definition of a System

    What’s Systems Theory?

    What’s Systems Thinking?

    What Are Some Systems Principles?

    What Are Some Systems Tools?

    Systems Thinking in Organizations

    Organizations as Open Systems (Examples of Systems in Organizations)

    Organizations as Open Systems

    Examples of Systematic Activities in Organizations

    Five Disciplines of Systems Thinking — Per Peter Senge

    Peter Senge wrote a seminal book about systems thinking, The Fifth Discipline (Doubleday, 1990). In his book, he suggested five disciplines necessary to cultivate systems thinking in an effort or organization. In addition to the discipline of systems thinking, he suggests the following four disciplines, as well.

    Personal Mastery

    Senge describes personal mastery as “continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of focusing our energies, of developing patience, and of seeing reality objectively” (The Fifth Discipline, Doubleday, 1990, p. 7).

    Mental Models

    Senge explains “Mental models are deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action” (p. 8).

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    Building Shared Vision

    Senge notes “If any one idea about leadership has inspired organizations for thousands of years, it’s the capacity to hold a shared picture of the future we seek to create” (p. 9).

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    Team Learning

    Senge asks “How can a team of committed managers with individual IQs above 120 have a collective IQ of 63?” (p. 9.).He adds “Team learning is vital because teams, not individuals, are the fundamental learning unit in modern organizations” (p. 10).

    Some Applications of Systems Theory

    Chaos Theory — Seeing Patterns and Themes in Chaos

    Systems theory has evolved to another level called chaos theory. In this context, chaos does not mean total confusion. Chaos refers to the dynamics of a system that apparently has no, or little, order, but in which there really is an underlying order. In these systems, small changes can cause complex changes in the overall system.

    (In technical terms, chaos theory applies to complex non-linear dynamics systems.) Chaos theory has introduced new perspectives and tools to study complex systems, such as biological, human, groups, weather, population growth, and the solar system.

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