Do you sometimes find yourself “stuck in a rut,” solving persistent problems that crop up again and again no matter what solutions you try?

Would you like to:

  • Better understand the underlying causes of complex problems?
  • Improve teamwork and reduce conflict?
  • Find lasting solutions to difficult problems?

If so, consider this an invitation to explore the world of systems thinking!

Understand the Causes of a Problem First

Let’s start with a story.

Joan is a senior manager in a social service agency. She is often frustrated with one of her peers, Carolyn, with whom she regularly interacts. The work of each of them directly impacts on the other. Joan complains that Carolyn often misses deadlines, regularly makes mistakes, and is an inconsistent communicator.

Up until now, these incidents have been handled situation by situation. But Joan is tired of the usual pattern: promises, lack of follow through, excuses, and conflict. Her frustration has grown and she’s having a hard time managing her emotions. She often feel it’s Carolyn’s problem, not hers. But she wants to improve things since they have to work together.

She invites Carolyn to have a conversation about what’s producing the results they’re getting. She knows that if you want to change the results, you need to first understand the causes.

In their conversation, they identify four main causes of their current results:

  • Inconsistent and “ad hoc” communication
  • Inadequate documentation and project management tracking processes
  • A belief that the other person is at fault and not well-intended
  • A common problem of having more to do than the capacity to get it done    

Once they identify those, they’re in a great position to figure out what results they do want and how to make changes that will get them there.

This is an example of using systems thinking to understand the cause of unwanted results. Systems thinking is so much more than that but often we become motivated to explore systems thinking because there’s a challenge or a change we seek to influence.

Three Sets of Lenses to View Situations

One definition of systems thinking is “the capacity for understanding the complexities of our world, including human interactions, for seeing structures that drive actions and behaviors, and for designing high leverage interventions so that our systems are aligned with our aspirations.”

One way to conceptualize systems thinking is to imagine three sets of lenses, each allowing us to see and experience the world in a particular way. Let’s call the first lens Type E, which stands for Events. Type E lenses enable us to see things one event at a time, like a set of snapshots. While these lenses allow us to fully experience what’s happening, they limit us to reacting one event at a time, without linking these events together. In the story above, Joan had been dealing with each missed deadline, error and communication gap as if it was happening for the first time. She was stuck in reactive mode.

The second lens is Type P, for Patterns. Type P lenses are more like a video. They allow us to see patterns over time. Type P lenses aid in planning and anticipating rather than merely reacting. You can predict but have little ability to influence. Joan had recognized the pattern of interactions with Carolyn. Being able to anticipate that, she was more prepared. But it also led to frustration and conflict because the real causes of their conflict hadn’t yet been teased out.

A third lens is Type S, which stands for Structure.  Structure is what’s below the surface of events and patterns, causing those events and patterns to occur.  There are many kinds of structure, both visible and invisible.  A building is a structure that results in certain kinds of interaction and behavior.  Relationships among people are structures, such as a family, a committee, an organization or a program planning team.  Policies, rules, and laws are other kinds of structures. Mental models are structures, too. They are deeply held internal images about how the world works, often below the level of conscious awareness. Seeing structure using the Type S lens offers the potential to design and create the results we want. 

Effective systems thinkers are adept at seeing the world simultaneously through each of these lenses. That allows them to more readily identify the causes of complex problems and to propose fundamental solutions. When Joan and Caroline identified a set of visible and invisible structures that were producing the results that kept occurring over and over, they were well on their way to making positive changes.

There’s a Lot Going On Below the Surface

Here’s a simple graphic that depicts these three levels of perspective:

In systems thinking circles, this image is often called “the iceberg,” Remember the phrase “tip of the iceberg”? What it means is “a small part of something (such as a problem) that is seen or known about when there is a much larger part that is not seen or known about.” It’s a good reminder to pay attention to what’s going on below the surface.

Getting Started with Systems Thinking

A great way to get started with systems thinking is to use the iceberg to better understand a problem or situation you face.  Here are some suggestions to get you going:

  • First frame the problem as something you have influence over and have attempted to address without success. This is a clue that there are structures involved here. In the example above, Joan had repeatedly tried to address the problem but it recurred. She knew she had responsibility to address it if she wanted to make progress.
  • Examine the problem from the events, patterns and structural perspective.   Answer the following questions:
    • Events:  What happened? How does the problem show up if only looking at it as an event?
    • Patterns:   What’s been happening?  What are some key trends? How does the problem show up when I look at it as a pattern?
    • Structure:  Why has this been happening? What are the underlying causes that produce the patterns? Identify at least one aspect each for Visible and Invisible.

Regular Systems Thinking Practice

When you take the time to see and understand the systems around you, this will become easier and easier. Here are some ways to do that:

  • Notice which lens you are using to see and understand things right now.
  • When an event catches your attention, start looking for the patterns, notice what’s changing over time, look for differences.
  • Ask why and how things are happening the way they do.
  • It’s a normal human trait to put blame on the people involved. Try to move past that. Look for what’s driving their actions. Try to assume they are acting reasonably and responsibly, from their viewpoint.
  • Look for ways you can change things to get the results you want.

Benefits of Systems Thinking for Leaders

Systems thinking is more than just a mental discipline, it is a whole way of seeing the world that increases the possibilities to influence the world in the direction of what we desire.

Systems thinking is also an excellent way to describe the current state of a system without judging. Even “dysfunctional” systems are working for a purpose. When we are stuck in a cycle of poor choices, whether it is about taking care of our body or relationships that cause us pain, it’s helpful to take the time to understand the system as it is currently operating in order to identify potential leverage points for change. If we don’t do that, we run the risk of inadvertently thwarting our best efforts to change. This is true with large systems change as well. Unless we understand the system as it currently is operating, we have little hope of sustaining significant change no matter how well-meaning the players.

Systems thinking can also identify where there are human choices involved. These human choices arise from assumptions and mental models that may not be fully conscious. For example, if I’m trying to grow my business and I hold the mental model “I can’t afford to pay for help,” I run the risk of failing to invest for success. Once we become aware of our  mental models, we have greater freedom to make different choices.

Finally, systems thinking enables us to forecast the future, allowing us to lay out alternative scenarios and anticipate potential consequences or effects of each. As such, it’s avery useful tool for leaders.

References for Further Exploration

There’s a multitude of great resources on systems thinking. Here I include a few concrete and easy to apply applications of systems thinking that I hope will whet your appetite for further exploration:


How to see structure

Quick Fixes and Cat Treats

Dj Vu All Over Again

PS. If you’re looking to discover more practical resources for dealing with vexing problems, click here for 5 Reasons to Tackle That Conversation You’ve Been Avoiding.  

Deborah Reidy’s specialty is distilling complex ideas into simple yet powerful tools that enable you to achieve outstanding results. She draws upon her background in organizational learning, neuroleadership, positive psychology, systems thinking and other bodies of knowledge to help you make progress on your goals.

She has decades of first-hand leadership experience, having worked in government, nonprofit and industry. For 25 years, she’s been a sought after leadership development coach, consultant and facilitator. In 2012, she published a book on leadership entitled Why Not Lead and she regularly blogs on leadership topics. Please visit her website.