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Systems Thinking

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Systems’ thinking is derived from viewing elements and components that work together in relationships for the overall good of the vision or the whole. Every aspect of our lives is involved in a system whether it is electronics, biology, organizations, relationships, or ecology. By being able to recognize these systems we can focus on facts, not theories, and can look at a problem or issue understanding better where it came from, why it happened, and how to improve it. “Systems thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes, recognizing patterns and interrelationships, and learning how to structure those interrelationships in more effective efficient ways” (Senge, P., and Lannon-Kim, C., 1991).

We live in what may appear to be a hierarchy of living systems. Starting at a cell, organ, individual, group/ team, organization, social/ community, earth/ world. In actuality there is a connection between everything in existence. Everything/everyone is connected to something/someone. One of my favorite examples of a system is the focus of the native culture. They use a circle to represent totality and view everything around them as part of their circle.

A dominant theme in all Native American Cultures is that of relationship or a series of relationships that are always reaching further and further out. Relationships within the immediate family reaching out to the extended family, to the band, outward again to the clan, and outward again to the tribal group. Relationships do not stop there but extend out to embrace and relate to the environment; to the land, to the animals, to the plants, and to the clouds, the elements, the heavens, the stars; and ultimately those relationships which people express and live extend to and embrace the entire universe. (Brown, 1993).

Native culture shows a great understanding of how their actions have and will affect the totality of the circle and they strive for balance within the system.

To better understand a system we should break it down and identify its characteristics. Every system has a purpose within a larger system. All of a system’s parts must be present for the system to carry out its purpose. System change in response to feedback is information that returns to the originator and influences subsequent actions. Systems maintain their stability by making adjustments on feedback. When you take action by making decisions you will experience results and again will make decisions on the feedback or results that you obtained. This is a system, a circle, and a process of everyday life.

These characteristics are important to be aware of. If you need to influence a system you must first watch and analyze how it behaves. You must study its beat and watch it work, learning its history. If you disturb a system at the wrong time or point the effects could be negative having a ripple effect throughout various parts of the system that were not intended to be altered. Timing and understanding are crucial for successfully influencing a system.

A key to understanding many systems begins with understanding our own systems. I do not mean our biological, but rather our individual and personal autonomy, by looking deeper inside ourselves, and questioning our own personal assumptions, views, and beliefs. If we can understand our own personal beliefs and values, that will enable us to create what we want in life, and allow us to create a personal vision. We can achieve competency and effectiveness on how we think, observe, and communicate.

Communication is just as important for improving interpersonal and working relationships. The tools that we have been learning in class from our books Non Violent Communication and Learning in Relation help me define who I am, realize exactly what it is that I need, and how to effectively communicate those needs and get the desired responses or results that I want. Once we understand what it is that we need and understand how a system works, only then can we positively affect it.

There are problems with individuals perceiving systems. A person can show various types of blindness that prohibit them from seeing the system. One type is when you do not see the “big” picture connections. We go through life unaware of things elsewhere that can indirectly yet powerfully affect our lives. Examples of this related to in class discussion would be the elephant that was drawn on the board. We placed people upon various body parts and talked about what that particular part felt like to them. Every part was described differently thus mistaking parts for a whole. In order to see the elephant in its totality you would need to step way back to view its grandness. We also had discussions about whether or not we felt we had an impact or are impacted by the wars in Iraq. We are connected to that through the linking of various systems.

Individuals can also get caught up in focusing only on the immediate. An example would be ignoring the past and neglecting the future. It is important to consider the past to understand how we got here and how our actions will effect future generations. Another way that one can exhibit blindness is in an us vs. them behavior. Each of us plays a role of a child, a parent, an employee, a spouse. Each role has its own network of changing relationships. How we interact in one system can have great effects on the another system/ role.

Systems’ thinking is growing in popularity and importance as we seek broader solutions to current problems. If we expand our thinking about systems to include system components that we viewed as being on the “outside”, we will have a more affluent set of resources to draw upon and help us solve our issues. As our understanding of systems thinking begins to exceed our limited perspectives, what we consider to be boundaries of systems will broaden.

In the short period of time that we were given to learn our topic of choice I have been busily analyzing my interactions and surroundings. I completely see how one must stand at a vantage point that lets you view the whole system, not just the problem that may have drawn you to focus on the system in the first place. There is a gap between understanding and implementation. I do not think that systems thinking alone can bridge that gap but I do feel that it can lead us to the edge of what analysis can do and then point beyond to what can and must be done.

In the past three weeks I have learned to trust my intuition more and my “figure-it-out” rationality less, to learn both as much as I can, but still be prepared for elements of surprise. Working with systems on the computer, among people, in my workplace, constantly reminds me of how incomplete my mental models are, how complex the world really is, and how much I still do not know.

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