Skip to content
Create an account for full access.

Applicability of Systems Thinking: Everywhere and Always

The last obstacle to thinking systemically is simply the absence of such thinking, not paying attention to types of systemic thinking in reasoning. You simply do not look for target systems in the world, do not consider their systemic environment during operation (even if the operation will only take place in the future), then do not consider their subsystems, methods of their creation, and only then pay attention to the creators. The author has encountered cases where people spent a lot of time mastering systemic thinking and even achieved some fluency in its use at the moment when they were explicitly instructed to apply some systemic reasoning in a complex situation. But in critical situations of their own work projects, they simply forgot to use it! This is not surprising and not specific to systemic thinking: people usually know how to perform a certain task well, but only true masters actually use this knowledge, often completely automatically - that is what makes them masters.

Non-masters know about the correct practices and ways of thinking, but they simply forget to apply them, or they are too lazy to do so because non-automatic reasoning (S2) is much more labor-intensive compared to intuitions (S1).

This feeling of confusion after starting the training (let's see you in a couple of weeks - you will still be in the course?), the inability to reorganize your life with sufficient time for learning (it is known that foreign languages are taught for years in school and university - but still not learned. But if you really get into it, for example, for the purpose of emigration or for use in work, then everything works out!), not using the results of long learning in work projects are usually associated with one reason: not understanding why these new extensive knowledge are needed, why use systemic thinking. People do live without this systemic thinking and live quite well!

The simple conclusion here is: if you want to make fewer mistakes in complex projects, then master systemic thinking, and then use it in life, all your life, in all projects. In some real complex situation, the habit of systematically thinking will save you: you will not make stupid mistakes even in situations that seem very complicated to the people around you. You will gain a competitive advantage over those who are slower in their thinking (and sometimes even over AI systems).

The main mistake in assessing the applicability of systemic thinking is to consider it as an applied thinking method that works only for a particular type of systems. For example, systems of only one scale and complexity, say, only for "iron" engineering systems, or only for software, or only for management. No, systemic thinking is a set of thinking methods from fundamental thinking methods. Fundamental disciplines/theories are therefore called transdisciplinary because they are "beyond" traditional subject/applied theories/explanations/disciplines that provide knowledge of work methods for a specific type of system, a specific scale of systems, a specific subject area.

The concepts of the systemic approach are introduced and used in many fundamental disciplines of thinking methods in the intellectual stack, starting with physics, which introduces the concept of a "system" itself. These concepts are used to manage attention/give a convenient system of types for important objects in the presence of multiple applied subject areas in a specific project and thus involve a variety of applied thinking and action methods. In the project, engineering work is carried out with specific types of systems (roses, steamships, transnational holdings, clienteles, cities, countries), which require the involvement of a huge number of different methods by many organizational roles of agent-creators. Creators can also create (often not from scratch, but still - change the realization) each other, forming complex creation graphs, where creators are nodes and nodes are connected by a relationship of creation: "Ivan taught::creation, Mary, programming to machines, Masha programmed::creation of a machine, the machine produced::creation detail #3."

Remember that even if you deal with roses, a rose system in a garden system must be grown by a gardening system, and a gardening system must also be developed by someone - and a system's gaze on you immediately becomes four (if you record them, you can easily keep them all in mind). Applied methods/practices/activities/cultures of work here are for changes in the physical world:

  • roses (for example, roses need to be tied - performed by a gardener),
  • gardens (for example, to divide it into areas, determining where the roses are - done by a gardener, but you cannot tie the gardens),
  • gardeners (for example, they need to be taught gardening - done by those who teach gardeners, but you cannot tie or divide gardeners among them),
  • those who teach gardeners (for example, they also need to be taught teaching so that they can teach gardeners, but we didn't even mention that someone should also do that - this will be the fifth system, and this chain can be continued, "teachers for teachers" must be prepared too).

When this is written, it is easy to understand. Systemic thinking helps to cut the world into objects that are convenient to discuss - but most importantly, it helps to find important objects. So, in the example of roses, by actually "automatically" asking about the fifth system (the one who teaches agents who will teach gardeners), which was outside the focus at the beginning of the reasoning. This is a huge value: you will easily notice a cockroach in a plate of soup - it is superfluous, but the absence of salt or spices in the soup - no. The soup will just be tasteless, but what is missing in it, why is it tasteless? To notice what has been forgotten in the project but should be there - this is the power of systemic thinking. If the attention in the project is not focused on the target system in its environment during operation (this is difficult because the system does not exist yet!), then the outcome of the project will not be a well-functioning system so much as a system that is easy and convenient to produce (if you forget that you will have to eat the soup when cooking, you can forget to add salt or spices - this is "extra work", so it's easy to forget about it). Systemic thinking will correct this, remind you of what was forgotten. Nine out of ten times, it will be trivial, but the tenth time - will save the project.

Managing attention can be quite difficult even in a simple project, where one person plays multiple roles and manages their own attention, distributing it over the objects of several subject areas, which may be present in this project. The wheat field and agronomy, the farm management team and the management as enterprise engineering, marketing as customer engineering, financial engineering for organizing farming investment, cyber-physical system engineering for agribot - everything, a "simple" project immediately becomes not very simple. Systemic thinking at least allows you to track and organize this "complexity" and organize thinking to cope with keeping the entire project as a whole in mind (and in computer records to assist the mind!) in all its diversity.

A question like "how can I assess the applicability of systemic thinking to my specific task-problem" precisely demonstrates this misunderstanding of the difference between fundamental knowledge and applied knowledge. Let's replace "systemic thinking" with "attention management" and ask again: "how to assess the applicability of attention management in my specific task-problem"? It seems that such a question is not asked, there is no point in such a question, because you need to manage attention always, in any tasks-problems. There is no question of "applicability" here. Nor is there a question of the applicability of logic, because it is not good to fantasize in reasoning at work, logic should be used in all reasoning. So, the concepts of the systemic approach should be applied (i.e., assign types of systemic thinking to project objects) as well: always, like logic, like attention management! In fact, this is attention management: conceptual (directed by types of meta-meta-model) attention management. Just think this way during the project, always directing your attention to objects indicated by the types from the systemic thinking course. You are currently studying this course, although you have not yet reached the actual concepts of systemic thinking, which will be explained from the next section.

Our systemic thinking course is aimed at using the results of learning in projects, so the course is engineering-related (aim: changing the world, even if it is about changing people - it is still engineering). It is not a course on the history of systemic thinking, so we do not provide detailed descriptions of general system theory, do not quote Bertalanffy, do not talk much about the theories of other past-century thinkers, do not tell much about the reasons for the failure of cybernetics as almost a synonym for system science. The course discusses what should be considered when doing something. But the course does not tell how to apply something specific: how to perform specific methods in the project, what roles to occupy in the project.

The "Systemic Thinking" course is a semester university course (5 European credits, approximately 30 hours of learning time per credit). This means that you need to set aside 2-3 hours a day minimum for 20-30 days to read the course material and complete the course assignments, and another 2-3 hours a day for ten to twenty days will be spent reading additional literature, meeting with the instructor (if you have chosen such a format variant), working on the project. In practice, this means reorganizing your daily schedule.

Avoid taking several courses "mixed up". The courses are designed for sequential completion. To not forget the material covered, repetitions are built into the courses. And there are also blocks in the courses with answers to questions - if you have a question, you will surely find the answer to it either a few pages into the current course or in the next course. So, the materials of our course will be repeated in the courses "Methodology," "Systems Engineering," "Personal Engineering," "Systems Management." After completing all these courses, many explanations in the systemic thinking course will become clearer. So we recommend not to get stuck for a long time on one incomprehensible piece of our course, just go through the whole sequence of courses again later, be sure to do the homework. Repeat: do the proposed modeling during working hours, as it concerns using the thinking proposed by the course in work projects - so work, think about work issues during work hours, even if it is an assignment from our course.