My understanding of Systems Thinking – a reflection by Christine Beck

Hello again, my name is Christine Beck and I’m interning at Sunium. With this reflection, I would like to bring the topic of Systems Thinking closer to you.

Systems Thinking as a methodology to see the big picture

Systems Thinking is a method that tries to have a holistic approach and to show you the bigger picture. We are educated to always think in departments. We specialise in one area and are supposed to be the expert in that field. Unfortunately, through this approach, people miss out on the big picture and that’s exactly where problems arise. Systems Thinking tries to teach people that everything is interconnected. This interconnectedness can be shown and visualised with variables. The variables break down the big picture into smaller bits in order to be able to see which variables play which role and how they affect each other.

My very first attempt in mastering a breakdown

My first try of breaking down a complicated situation into the different variables which are measurable was on economic migration. This complex issue serves as a good example of Systems Thinking. As the first step, I tried to come up with the different variables. My first instinct was to simply name the key actors that play a role in the given problem, for example the government, the migrants, the politicians, the receiving country, etc. I realised that the problem lies exactly here.

The variables need to be measurable. Naming the different key actors was simply not enough in order to be able to break down this complex problem, so I had to try to put those variables into perspective and therefore make them measurable. Thus, I tried to redefine all the variables. The result were variables like the willingness of the migrants to migrate into another country and the willingness of the receiving country to receive migrants.

The second step is to find out how the different variables are linked to each other. After connecting all the variables to each other, a very clear picture results out of the given problem. There are some variables which only affect other variables, but do not get affected by anything and there are other variables which only get affected by other variables, but do not affect any other variable and there are variables which do affect other variables and get affected by other variables. The latter are the variables which are of “high risk” and are very important to the holistic approach to the problem.

By trying to put everything into perspective and especially by trying to identify which variables interact with each other, it is possible to map out any problem, including the most complex problems. Every problem can thus be visualised in a simplified manner in order to be able to understand where the problems arise from. Most importantly, by mapping the linkage of the different variables, it is possible to create an understanding of how the whole picture changes by changing just one or multiple of the variables.

This method is not only useful for solving big problems of the world, but can also be adapted for an everyday use. Ever since I heard of this method and got acquainted with it, I have a new perspective on the world and how I think. You can use this method to try to find a solution on world hunger or for a more personal use, like trying to find out why your roommate is always angry at you.

What I personally learned from it

Systems Thinking taught me to approach a problem in a systematic way. I now try to break down the problem into different, small variables. I then try to see how they are connected to each other and only after that I start thinking on what I could change in order to solve the problem. I feel as if the ship finally has a captain and is not floating around in the wide ocean taking shots in the dark to find its way home. Much more, I now have the feeling that the captain has an overview of all the obstacles out there and knows what to do for each of them and what the result of each change will be. The captain can now steer the ship safely back to the port.

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