Time to rethink ‘systems thinking’

This post explores the limitations of systems thinking when referring to groups of people or whole organisations. It argues that differentiation is needed between the complicated and the complex and that, in the absence of this, the universal application of a system metaphor is propping up outmoded and unhealthy approaches to management within organisations.

The ubiquitous system

These days we are encouraged to think of everything as a system.

We have sound systems, IT systems, ecosystems, socio-economic systems and now our organisations are increasingly being referred to as human systems.

It seems we are obsessed with systems thinking.

Like so many areas of theory and practice, systems thinking started as an alternative to previous perspectives that were thought to have limitations. In the world of Organisation Development (OD) it allowed for a more strategic, ‘systemic’ perspective. This perspective took into account many more variables acting within the organisation. It even evolved to allow for influences external to the organisation through the development of ‘open systems’ thinking.

A step too far

There have been many benefits to systems thinking, particularly in increasing efficiency in repeatable, task-oriented processes. However, things have gone too far. One challenge I have with systems thinking is the very fact that it has become an obsession. As such, it is applied to everything without much thought. It sounds scientific and robust. It offers the promise of unpicking even the most challenging of contexts. It has become one of our contemporary silver bullets.

Another, more significant challenge for me, is that the system metaphor is inappropriate when referring to contexts that involve any form of sentient beings. This is because when human beings are in the ‘loop’, the complicated becomes complex.

Predictably unpredictable

Complicated and complex are used interchangeably all the time. For our purposes we need to differentiate between the two. This differentiation comes in the form of predictability. In simple terms, complicated systems create predictable outcomes. Complex systems do not. Complex systems are predictably unpredictable.

In complicated systems, composed of mechanical devices, inputs and outputs are simply strings of ones and zeroes. Predictability is assured, even when the overall system is very complicated.

In the case of ‘systems’ involving human beings, inputs and outputs are not ones and zeroes. They come in the form of language that is affected by meaning-making processes as each individual makes sense of and passes on information.

This meaning making creates alternative interpretations of the information. The nature of these interpretations is unpredictable because each individual has nuanced meaning-making filters that are, in turn, further nuanced as individuals interact with others and their environment.

Through these processes, subtle translations can quickly become transformations in meaning due to the cumulative effect of messages altering form through many interactions.

Time for new thinking

In the paragraphs above I used the phrases ‘complicated system’ and ‘complex system’. Many argue this is all that is needed to differentiate the two types of contexts being observed. It is argued this is enough to direct the observer to think about alternative ways to intervene in each context.

Until recently, this is exactly how I articulated my approach to this need for differentiation. Of late, however, my thinking has shifted. I have been influenced by the discourse flowing from the complexity sciences and by my own experiences working with groups and organisations.

I am now uncomfortable with the word ‘system’ when referring to any processes that involve people, or indeed to any natural, biological processes. This is because, for me, the word ‘system’ stimulates a mindset based on an underlying machine metaphor. This metaphor results in the same types of intervention being applied to both the complicated and the complex.

“I am not a number”

Thinking of organisations as ‘human systems’ leads to the assumption that people are ‘devices’ in a machine. They become thought of as similar to the computers and other non-sentient resources that make up the complicated systems in the organisation. In this world of systems thinking, sentient human beings continue to be ‘human resources’ to be counted, programmed and deployed.

Faced with the inevitable unpredictability flowing from complex processes of human interaction, an assumption is made that order can be restored through ‘codifying’ and ‘programming’ individual ‘mindsets’ and ‘behaviours’.

Ultimately, this thinking is propping up command and control styles of management that many see as counter-productive in these more unpredictable times and increasingly harmful to the wellbeing of people working in our organisations.

A new metaphor is needed. This I will explore in my next post.

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