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  • Writer's pictureThupden Gurung

The Hidden Patterns of Everyday Chaos: Introduction to Systems Thinking

In the world of systems, there's a simple yet powerful metaphor that can help us grasp the essence of this complex concept. Consider the humble slinky, that familiar toy you might have played with as a child. This coiled, springy wonder has the potential to teach us profound lessons about the intricacies of systems. A slinky is, at its core, a long, flexible spring. It can perform a fascinating dance – bouncing up and down, oscillating back and forth from hand to hand, and even descending a flight of stairs in a captivating manner.

Now, picture this: If you hold the top of the slinky in one hand and gently release your grip on the bottom, the slinky responds by dropping and then rebounding in a rhythmic yo-yo-like motion, suspended from your fingers. It's as if the slinky possesses a life of its own, reacting to the forces you apply. But what causes this bounce? Is it the power of your hand? To find out, try the same experiment with a cube. When you hold a cube in the same manner and release your lower hand, you'll notice that nothing interesting occurs. The cube remains static. The intriguing aspect of the slinky's bounce lies within the slinky itself. It's not solely your hand that sets it in motion, but rather the interplay between the structure of the slinky and the external forces applied to it. This relationship between structure and behavior is at the heart of systems thinking. It offers valuable insights into understanding why certain outcomes occur and how we can influence them to achieve more desirable results.

In essence, this simple experiment with a slinky unveils the central insight of systems thinking. But before delving deeper into this concept, let's start with a fundamental question: What exactly is a system?

A system, in its most basic form, is a collection of elements – be it people, cells, molecules, or any other components – that are interconnected in a way that generates a unique pattern of behavior over time. It's this interconnectedness that we'll explore as we journey into the world of systems and how they shape our understanding of the world.

We are surrounded by systems but we misinterpret them all the time.

We blame political leaders for the turbulent economic cycles but it is the nature of the economy to experience ups and downs. Companies blame their competitors when they lose market share, when in fact it is their own policies to blame. The flu virus does not attack our body, our internal conditions enable its spread. Drug addiction isn't an individual's failure, it is a complex issue rooted in societal influence.

When we look at these systems problems, we often respond in two ways:

  1. Recognition: Something about it seems pure common sense

  2. Resistance: Something about it is deeply unsettling

These responses arise from two human experiences:

  1. We've been taught to analyze using our rational minds to trace direct paths from cause to effect. To break things down into small and understandable pieces to solve problems by controlling the environment.

  2. We cannot always depend on our rational minds because there's complexity everywhere. We are complex systems. Our own bodies are integrated, interconnected, self-maintaining complexities.

Since the Industrial Revolution, our society has benefitted a lot from science, logic, and reductionism over intuition and holism. We've psychologically and politically programmed ourselves to assume that the cause of the problem is 'out there' rather than 'in here'.

That's why it is said that we live in a magic pill economy. We like to shift responsibility and look for the control knob, the product that will make all our problems go away in the shortest time possible.

There's no denying the fact that looking to external agents has solved some of the most serious problems that we have faced, like smallpox, food production and transportation. However, some solutions end up doing more harm than good. Simply because of the fact that problems may be rooted in the internal structure of complex systems.

Problems like hunger, poverty, environmental degradation, addiction and war still exist despite our analytical ability and technical brilliance. No one likes to create these problems and no one wants them to persist, yet they do. Because it is intrinsically a systems problem.

So that is why I want to make this knowledge more digestible because there is a problem in modern systems theory. And that is, it hides the fact that systems thinking is actually plain common sense, but it is. I really believe that this knowledge can move from some industry jargon to traditional wisdom because it should.

This entire series will be a reconstruction of this timeless book, "Thinking In Systems" written by one of the pioneers of this subject, Donella Meadows. I highly recommend supplementing your understanding of systems by reading this book because it is comforting to have the solution in our hands but disturbing in the sense that we must do, see and think differently. And this book along this series is about that different way of seeing and thinking.

The discussion will be totally non-technical in order to facilitate the understanding without overly relying on mathematics and computers. We'll visit the basics so as to redefine systems by dissecting and putting it back to see how they fit together to form the basic unit of a system, which is, the feedback loop.

We will look at some common interesting types of systems and how and why they work so beautifully. Why they often confound us and why sometimes even with our best intentions, they add up to a terrible result. We will understand why some things that have worked in the past, doesn't work anymore and why sometimes systems act erratically into a behaviour that is never seen before.

We will also look at some of the common archetypes in the systems thinking community such as the tragedy of the commons, eroding goals, policy resistance and addiction. We'll also learn how to look for leverage points in a system to create desirable results.

I do not aim to aim to advocate that systems way of seeing is better than a reductionist way of thinking. It is in fact complimentary. Donella Meadows writes,

"You can see some things through the lens of the human eye, other things through the lens of a microscope, others through the lens of a telescope, and still others through the lens of systems theory. Everything seen through each kind of lens is actually there. Each way of seeing allows our knowledge of the wondrous world in which we live to become a little more complete. At a time when the world is more messy, more crowded, more interconnected, more interdependent, and more rapidly changing than ever before, the more ways of seeing, the better. "

Looking through the lens of systems allows us to reclaim our intuition about systems, hone our abilities to understand parts and see interconnections so that we can ask what if?

This idea of looking at things from a systems lens is highlighted in the book by an ancient Sufi story of the blind men and the elephant:

Beyond Ghor, there was a city. All its inhabitants were blind. A king with his entourage arrived nearby; he brought his army and camped in the desert. He had a mighty elephant, which he used to increase the people’s awe. The populace became anxious to see the elephant, and some sightless from among this blind community ran like fools to find it. As they did not even know the form or shape of the elephant, they groped sightlessly, gathering information by touching some part of it. Each thought that he knew something, because he could feel a part. . . . The man whose hand had reached an ear . . . said: “It is a large, rough thing, wide and broad, like a rug.” And the one who had felt the trunk said: “I have the real facts about it. It is like a straight and hollow pipe, awful and destructive.” The one who had felt its feet and legs said: “It is mighty and firm, like a pillar.” Each had felt one part out of many. Each had perceived it wrongly. . . .
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