Systems Thinking Examples and How They Apply to Your Life

Awareness of Systems Thinking leads to improved reasoning, better decisions, and greater self-awareness. It offers a window into the hidden processes of the human mind, of thought itself.

Many view the world simplistically, as if it were ordered, linear, and mechanical and that we are at the center of it all. Here’s the challenge: the world is dynamic, interconnected, and unpredictable.

We see ourselves at the top of the food chain, yet we are one of the millions of organisms. We perceive people, things, and events in isolation, yet everything is interwoven. We think the world operates much like a pencil sharpener - turn the crank and voila! a sharp pencil - yet the world is dynamic and unpredictable much like shoppers at Costco. We perceive the world as static, yet all things are in process and forever changing, including ourselves.

In other words, how we perceive and relate to the world doesn’t match with reality. Despite the feedback the world is giving us, we cling to fixed beliefs and paradigms. It is the Spencer Johnson "Who moved my cheese?" phenomenon.

So why is systems, or integrative, thinking important?

Systems Thinking sees the interrelationships of all things. Instead of solving superficial problems, Systems Thinking addresses them at their roots. Not only does Systems Thinking apply to the practical, it is the very foundation of spirituality, even love.

Once you think in systems, you will never look at the world the same way.

What Is A System?

A system is a group of interrelated parts working together as a whole.

A chair consists of legs, arms, and a seat. Together the parts function to keep a person off the floor but separate they are useless. For a chair to work, all components must be present and configured in a particular way. If one part is missing, or not in the right place, the person will fall to the floor.

What makes a system so powerful is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. “It means that the relationship which the parts have to each other is a part in and of itself,” writes Stephen Covey.

Here’s another interesting thing: every component of a system is its own network. Systems consist of parts, and every piece, in turn, is a system consisting of its own parts, or “subsystems.”

A universe consists of billions of galaxies, and a galaxy consists of billions of solar systems, and a solar system consists of a star, planets, moons, and asteroids, etc. You get the idea: Systems are like Russian nesting dolls. Each doll fits inside a larger doll, or supersystem, while at the same time holding a smaller doll or subsystem.

Systems go the other way too.

In the U.S., towns combine to form counties, and counties combine to form states, and states combine to form our country, and countries combine to form continents, and continents combine to form the earth, and the earth combines with other planets and matter to form a solar system. And on it goes into the infinity of space.

The book on your shelf functions as a system with a cover, binding, table of contents, pages, printed text, and index. With its skin, flesh, bones, and mind, the human body also forms a system, a marvel of evolution.

But systems are invisible, so we are largely unaware of them. They are everywhere yet hidden in plain sight: grades in school, applying to college, career, marriage, mortgages, 401Ks, police forces, cancer, free speech, races, racism, religions, and feminism.

Of course, systems never start as one. They begin as a seed that organizes itself, and over time becoming calcified and resistant to change. That’s why we admire Gandhi for quietly overthrowing the British Empire and Elon Musk for upending the auto industry, one of the world’s biggest and most stubborn. Each made systemic change look easy.

But it wasn’t magic. Gandhi and Musk approached the situation systematically, one piece of the puzzle at a time.

Management works in the system; leadership works on the system. - Stephen Covey

What Is Systems Thinking?

Systems Thinking, or metacognition, is higher-order thinking. It is thinking about thinking, knowing about knowing, and awareness of one’s awareness, and it is wildly important. It is a universal process for gaining a more fluid and contextualized understanding of both physical and spiritual.

The famous pointillist painting, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte by George Seurat, illustrates this. If you were to stand close enough, you would see only dots of paint. But if you were to step back, those same dots would combine to form images of people, hats, umbrellas, dogs, and trees. The systems approach sees patterns within and between systems - people wear hats and carry umbrellas, dogs do not.

If there is any one thing I love about writing more than the rest, it's that sudden flash of insight when you see how everything connects. - Stephen King

Seeing patterns is to see the hidden formation of ideas, innovation, and creativity. Researchers believe that during creative thought, the three networks of the brain - default, executive, and salience - operate as a system. The default network generates ideas, the salience network acts as a gatekeeper, and the executive network evaluates ideas.

“I read a study that measured the efficiency of locomotion for various species on the planet. The condor used the least energy to move a kilometer. And, humans came in with a rather unimpressive showing, about a third of the way down the list. It was not too proud a showing for the crown of creation. So, that didn’t look so good. But, then somebody at Scientific American had the insight to test the efficiency of locomotion for a man on a bicycle. And, a man on a bicycle, a human on a bicycle, blew the condor away, completely off the top of the charts. And that’s what a computer is to me. What a computer is to me is it’s the most remarkable tool that we’ve ever come up with, and it’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.” - Steve Jobs

Information creates meaning, but did you know structure also creates meaning? Derek Cabrera illustrates this idea:

“Consider the following two sentences. Woman, without her man, is helpless. Woman, without her, man is helpless…Notice that while the information content or the text is the same for these two sentences, the meaning is quite different. If the text is the same and the meaning is different, then there must be some other factor, which is the grammatical structure of the sentence, which contributes to meaning.”

Being a systems thinker means seeing both information and structure, or mental models. While not reality, mental models are the closest representation we have.

Systems Thinking [is] a way of thinking about, and a language for describing and understanding, the forces and interrelationships that shape the behavior of systems. This discipline helps us to see how to change systems more effectively, and to act more in tune with the natural processes of the natural and economic world. - Peter Senge

Many see unrelated and unpredictable events caused by forces largely beyond control. Such event thinking is narrow, analytical, and reductionist. Systems Thinking is broad, open, and deliberate. Event thinking is reactive while Systems Thinking is proactive and responsive.

So, information is “what you know,” and Systems Thinking is “how you know”. Seeing both leads to solving the right problems at the right level. A systems thinker keeps investigating until they get to the last doll.

Examples of Systems Thinking

Lego: Learning to See the Unknown

As a kid, Lego came in blocks, not ready-made kits. So my brother and I built cars from the pieces and smashed them together.  

We would start with one flat, rectangular piece, the chassis. Then we would add two sets of wheels and Lego blocks until we had what resembled a car. We would then smash them together, and the pieces would fly around. It was great fun.

After each session, we would examine the cars and make adjustments. We were trying to build the most crash-worthy car after all. Despite our efforts, design improvements were slow.

One time, instead of adding the usual blocks, I added a second rectangular piece to the original and kept going. After several more layers, I had what resembled a stack of graham crackers with wheels.

My brother’s car exploded like fireworks. Only the chassis, wheels, and a couple of blocks resembling low-rise apartment buildings remained. My car suffered only slight delamination.  

What was happening here?

We were observing how the pieces interacted and iterating. When we couldn’t break the last model, we packed up the Lego blocks and never played again.  

Leonardo da Vinci:  Master of Systems Thinking

Though known for his artwork, Leonardo da Vinci was a connoisseur of all life. He was an architect, musician, anatomist, inventor, engineer, mathematician, sculptor, geologist, writer, and botanist.

He possessed “unquenchable curiosity” and a “feverishly inventive imagination” and is regarded as one of history’s most talented individuals. But perhaps his greatest strength was his ability to think in systems. He was fascinated by the relationships between disciplines, and he was forever exploring, experimenting, and tinkering across all fields.

“These are the principles for the development of a complete mind: Study the science of art. Study the art of science…Realize that everything connects to everything else,” he wrote.

How To Build The World’s Best Hockey Team

After World War II, Anatoly Tarasov was tasked with building from scratch the world’s best hockey team. At the time, only bandy existed in the U.S.S.R., a distant cousin to hockey.

Tarasov intuited that to be the best would require reinventing the game. Rather than copying the Canadians, the inventors of hockey, the game itself would have to be redesigned from the ground up. Otherwise, the Soviets would never beat the Canadians.

He studied old hockey manuals and Bolshoi ballet dancers and strategized with chess grandmasters. His training regimens were as unorthodox as his focus on passing as the key to winning. He put his players through grueling four-times-a-day practices. So all-consuming was his training that years later one Swedish player would lament, “We Swedes don’t grow up to practice like this. I don’t want to die.”

“You were not yourself; you were part of the system,” writes Ryan Bort. “The ‘Russian Five’ shared a bond that was unparalleled in the history of sports. On the ice they practically shared the same mind, operating as a single, graceful, dodging-and-weaving organism of hockey excellence. They destroyed everyone they played, including every NHL team they matched up against in the Super Series exhibitions.”

“The great coach, Anatoli Tarasov, started special system,” says former player Viacheslav Fetisov “…and he created a new style where all five guys play for each other.” Journalist Lawrence Martin said, “Their passing game was an intricate, artistic tapestry.” “We just can’t compete. It’s too difficult,” lamented Wayne Gretzky.

So how did Anatoly Tarasov achieve one of the most remarkable feats in sports? He stripped the game of hockey to its bare essence before rebuilding it systematically, one part of the whole at a time. In other words, he used Aristotle’s first principles thinking to reinvent the game and build one of the world’s most powerful hockey programs and arguably the greatest team that ever played.

For the Love of Systems Thinking

Believe it or not, Systems Thinking is an act of love. Love could be defined as looking a stranger in the eye and seeing that person as a brother or a sister. It is the recognition of another as oneself, only in a different form. To love another is to acknowledge their whole being, including all facets of their humanity, pleasant and unpleasant.

Suppose I were to label you as impatient. No longer would I see the dynamic, complex being that you are. Instead, I would see only your impatience. Limiting you in this way would not only be unloving, but it would be an act of violence that blinds me to your basic goodness. While impatience may be one aspect of your personality, surely it does not consider your good qualities such as friendliness, generosity, and courage.

“Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” - Walt Whitman

Seeing others holistically is to recognize their whole nature taking into consideration all aspects of their personhood. When we label someone, no longer do we see the dynamic person. Instead, we see only what we look for - the label. Therefore, looking for others’ good qualities is an act of love, a verb and a practice.

How Can I Learn Systems Thinking?

Though uncommon, systems thinking is not reserved for Silicon Valley types with INTJ personalities. Anyone can learn; here’s how:

Make Distinctions Between Things

Everything in the universe has its own identity and acts like another. Such boundary-setting defines what something is and is not. A pear is a pear, and it is not a peach. You are you, and you are not me.

Systems thinkers notice nuanced distinctions and challenge existing beliefs that lead to new ideas and innovation. Think Aristarchus of Samos and his revolutionary idea that the sun, rather than the earth, is at the center of our solar system.

Realizing that the earth is smaller than the sun, Aristarchus concluded that planets must revolve around the sun. It would be another two thousand years, through the power of telescopes, before heliocentrism would be widely accepted.

Organize Distinctions Into Systems

Thinking is defined as either splitting things up or lumping things together. A systems thinker creates meaning by organizing things and ideas into part-whole systems. They keep asking “what is this a part of?” to get to the most fundamental level.

When a non-systems thinker is unhappy with work, they assume the job itself is the source of their unhappiness. They see one system, working for someone else, so they change jobs. When a systems thinker encounters the same situation, they rethink their entire work. They may discover the real problem is a lack of autonomy and geographic freedom that leads them to a second system - working for oneself.

From here they may choose the agency and freedom afforded by working overseas as a solopreneur. While this may sound obvious to many, especially younger generations, it’s amazing how many people remain trapped in the paradigm of working for someone else.

Relate Systems to One Another

A systems thinker asks, “What relationships exist among these parts?” to see how things and ideas act on one another in the same way a chess player looks at a game of chess.  

“Here is an essential principle of education: to teach details is to bring confusion; to establish the relationship between things is to bring knowledge.” —From Childhood to Adolescence

Charlie Munger is a wonderful example of a systems thinker who sees the value of sharing ideas across disciplines. For example, he borrowed the idea of “margin of safety” from engineering to develop a powerful financial investing model.

In engineering, a margin of safety is the relative strength of a structure to its requirements. The greater the difference between strength and need, the greater the margin of safety. The concept of margin of safety, when applied to investing, means buying a security only when its market price is far enough below its intrinsic value to invest safely.

Narratives also allow for nonlinear, interconnected arguments to unfold naturally—something that the rigid linearity of PP [PowerPoint] does not permit. Such interconnectedness defines many of our most important business decisions. Moreover, better-informed people make higher-quality decisions, and can deliver better, more detailed feedback on the presenting teams' tactical and strategic plans. If our executives are better informed, at a deeper level, on a wider array of important company initiatives, we will gain a substantial competitive advantage over executives elsewhere who rely on traditional low-bandwidth methods of communication (e.g., PP). - Jeff Bezos internal memo to Amazon employees, from Working Backwards

Observe Systems From Different Perspectives

Perspectives are both point and view, and the point is different from the perspective. Perspectives go beyond sensory perception to form concepts like mental models.

Systems Thinking is universal to how the mind creates useable knowledge. And the patterns our minds construct are simply models of the real world. Systems thinkers ask, “What new perspectives would help me to understand better?”

The following from Alan Wallace illustrates this idea:

Imagine walking along a sidewalk with your arms full of groceries, and someone roughly bumps into you so that you fall and your groceries are strewn over the ground. As you rise up from the puddle of broken eggs and tomato juice, you are ready to shout out, “You idiot! What’s wrong with you? Are you blind?” But just before you catch your breath to speak, you see that the person who bumps into you actually is blind. He, too, is sprawled in the spilled groceries, and your anger vanishes in an instant, to be replaced by sympathetic concern: “Are you hurt? Can I help you up?” Our situation is like that. When we clearly recognize that the source of disharmony and misery in the world is ignorance, we can open the door of wisdom and compassion.

All our knowledge has its origins in our perceptions. - Leonardo da Vinci

How Can I Apply Systems Thinking to My Life?

Suppose you want to improve your filing system. Using the conventional method, you may conclude that color-coding your files would the optimal way to improve efficiency.

Using Systems Thinking, you would see that your filing system is part of the larger structure of information storage and retrieval. From this perspective, you may decide to replace the current paper-based system with an all-electronic one thus transforming your workflow.

So, find the right level, choose the best system, and then optimize.

Look for circles of causality. Instead of getting entangled in a news story, think about what may have given rise to the story in the first place. When your partner is irritable, see how your behavior may have contributed to their moodiness.

Like all things, the more you practice, the more habitual and effortless Systems Thinking will become. And you have to slow down. The more you slow down and act deliberately, the greater the clarity with which you see the world.

Benefits of Systems Thinking

Research shows that Systems Thinking enhances intelligence in four major areas:

Content Mastery

Suppose that a systems thinker observes that some animals like the cheetah have a longer tail than other animals. And they discover that a tail acts as a rudder, stabilizing and counterbalancing an animal’s body. So the bigger the animal, the longer the tail needed to offset its bigger size.

Continuing this line of thinking, they conclude that just like a tail helps an animal maintain physical balance, mindfulness helps a human maintain emotional balance. A systems thinker  looks for patterns like these among and between things, ideas and disciplines that lead to deeper insights.

Lifelong Learning Skills

A typical student entering college sees the enormity of the task ahead and quickly gets to work studying. Before hitting the books, a systems thinker asks, How do we learn, and how long does it take to learn? Do we learn better by listening, reading, or both? Is it more effective to take in new information in one gulp, or sip by sip? Do we learn better in silence or with Mozart playing in the background?

Questions like these enable the systems thinker to get to the heart of learning - learning how to learn - that applies to any subject. High leverage areas exist in every system, and when applied to any situation leads to greater output with less effort. Systems thinkers like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos use first principles thinking to challenges the status quo asking, “why is it done this way?”

It takes little to do or change most things, but it takes a lot to figure what that little is. - author unknown

IQ Skills

Everyone wants to be smart, and every parent wants his or her kid to be the most intelligent. We marvel at such intellectual giants as Newton, Socrates, and Einstein. The good news is regardless of intellect, Systems Thinking can enhance IQ (cognitive intelligence).  

Instead of thinking mechanically, a systems thinker sees all systems - social, political, economic, ecological, and physical - sharing the same basic structure. They recognize, for example, that all mammals share common vertebrae, and that the knowledge gained studying one mammal vertebrae applies to the study of all mammals.

The systems approach, or synthesis, facilitates learning without requiring mastery of every subject.

People who boast about their IQ are losers - Stephen Hawking

Many people earning millions of dollars pay lower effective tax rates than those earning say $30,000, by taking advantage of tax loopholes. While most view this as a morality problem, Warren Buffett views it as a tax code problem. In other words, if you want to stop the behavior, fix the system (tax codes). Such fundamental thinking enables Buffett to stick to the issue at hand - everyone pays their fair share - rather than getting sidetracked with judgments of morality.

EQ Skills

Emotional intelligence (EQ) is the ability to recognize one’s own and others’ emotions. Some believe EQ is even more important to success in life than cognitive intelligence (IQ). Research shows that Systems Thinking encourages EQ skills such as resilience, compassion, mental stability, and prosocial behavior.

Suppose your mood tends to swing day-to-day or even hour-to-hour. A linear thinker views such mood swings as one-off events and chalks it up to waking up on the ‘wrong side of the bed.’ But the systems approach looks for the causes and conditions contributing to such swings. He or she may observe, for example, that sleep affects their mood and then go about getting sufficient sleep.

“As a principle-centered person, you try to stand apart from the emotion of the situation and from other factors that would act on you, and evaluate the options. Looking at the balanced whole - the work needs, the family needs, other needs that may be involved and the possible implications of the various alternative decisions — you’ll try to come up with the best solution, taking all factors into consideration.” - Stephen Covey

Hindrances to Systems Thinking

Following are some of the challenges to Systems Thinking:

Not taught in school. Students are not taught to think, apply knowledge or relate learning across disciplines. They don’t learn about systems, first principles, mental models, integrative thinking, or synthesis. Instead, we expect students to regurgitate information like birds feeding their young.

Biology drives behavior. Our biology compels us to conserve energy and to avoid risk to stay alive and reproduce. But these forces are not always in our best interest. Systems Thinking helps us to look beyond the immediacy of emotions toward what is best for us. Should I scroll pretty women on Instagram, or build that website I've been talking about for the past three years?

The inertia of laziness. Systems Thinking is the deepest and most demanding type of thinking. It takes effort, not only emotionally but physically. Brain cells consume calories too, you know. So turn off the TV and turn on your mind.  

Quick-Fix Mentality. The quick-fix mentality reacts before grasping the situation. The systems mentality thinks and then responds. Slowing down makes you go faster.

Lack of awareness. Systems are intangible and easy to forget. As with mindfulness, remembering to think in systems is often the hardest part.  

The World Needs Good Thinkers

Awareness of Systems Thinking leads to improved reasoning, better decisions, and greater self-awareness. It offers a window into the hidden processes of the human mind, of thought itself. It helps us to develop an integral mind, a mind that is fluid, flexible, and adaptable. It enables us to experience more, to connect more, to create more. And yes, to love more.

As our world becomes more complex, both globally and personally, we need good thinkers. We need people willing to look past the chaos to see what’s really going on. Whether a household, work, or complex social problem, Systems Thinking can help.

Years later, as I walked on a parquet floor where the tree rings lie vertical, it made sense why our last car design was so strong. Knowing this, we could have gone straight to the final design. Of course, what fun would there have been in that? As they say, the journey is the destination.

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