Bas Reus' quest on self-organization and online collaborative spaces

Systems thinking

Posted in philosophy, self-organization by Bas Reus on November 3, 2009

Inspired by the many comments on previous posts and their deferring visions (myself included) about systems, systems thinking and systems theory, I thought it was time for a post about these subjects. For now I will focus on systems thinking. We talked about whether organizations are systems or not, what systems are and are not, and if it helps to compare organizations with systems. Very precarious matter, it seemed. To me, it is precarious as well. To compare two things with each other is always tricky. Do we share the same vocabulary? Are we referring to the same? Are we oversimplifying the subject matter? Talking about organizations makes it even more trickier, because no organization is the same. The forms of organizations can differ, let alone the people who make up the conversation of organization. Think Wittgenstein here…

Apple_and_Orange_-_they_do_not_compareLike many people, I like to understand certain phenomena. If we do not understand, we tend to compare these phenomena with ones we do understand, or think we understand. That comparison should help us with understanding the more complex phenomena. While this can be a strategy that helps us, it can distract us from the important aspects of these phenomena as well. This is always a pitfall when comparing apples and oranges. However, systems thinking is not just an apple or an orange, it can make sense to make use of systems thinking to try to understand tiny parts of a larger unit, in relation to other parts.

Can’t we think of organizations as systems at all? It depends on the vocabulary we use and have in common. I think it can help to deduct to some smaller pieces present in organizations. Carter McNamara shares his view, and it contributes to my understanding. His statement on what a system is, shows the complexity of a system:

A pile of sand is not a system. If one removes a sand particle, you’ve still got a pile of sand. However, a functioning car is a system. Remove the carburetor and you’ve no longer got a working car.

The statement above is a somewhat simple example, that illustrates the complexity of a system. When you remove a lot of particles, the pile will collapse or even disappear. Translated to an organization, it becomes apparent what the problem with the comparison between systems and organizations is. Like with systems, every particle in an organization plays a role. It influences other parts. Maybe some particles can easily be removed, because they have little or no influence on other parts. The organization still works as expected, but we call it more efficient. Some particles are more difficult to replace, it has more influence on other parts and the organization will change as a result. Unlike with systems, there are no two particles alike when humans are involved. Therefore, the statement above doesn’t help me that much. The comparison is still a problem. What helps, is the statement of the same Carter McNamera when he explains why it is important to look at organizations as systems.

The effect of this systems theory in management is that writers, educators, consultants, etc. are helping managers to look at organizations from a broader perspective. Systems theory has brought a new perspective for managers to interpret patterns and events in their organizations. In the past, managers typically took one part and focused on that. Then they moved all attention to another part. The problem was that an organization could, e.g., have wonderful departments that operate well by themselves but don’t integrate well together. Consequently, the organization suffers as a whole.

This is helpful. Organizations are not systems, but it helps to look at an organization as if it were a system. Changing something in the organization always has influence on other areas in the organization. The comparison refers to complexity, both organizations as well as systems are complex. It can help to deal with the complexity of an organization. But then again, by looking at it as a system you should not make it a system, the processes that occur in organizations are not comparable to systems at all.


19 Responses

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  1. Howard said, on November 3, 2009 at 17:12

    I don’t know if you have come across the systems thinking work of John Seddon, but it is pretty revolutionary what he is discovering and learning in organisational thinking and design.

    This can be clearly seen where performance improvement is massive whilst workers become free and excited by work again.

  2. […] Systems thinking « Bas Reus' quest on self-organization and online collaborative spaces – view page – cached Posted in philosophy, self-organization by Bas Reus on November 3, 2009 […]

  3. uberVU - social comments said, on November 5, 2009 at 05:08

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by bottomup: New blogpost on Systems thinking. What can we learn from it? #complexity #systemsthinking #e20…

  4. John Tropea said, on November 5, 2009 at 05:31

    Bas this post is brilliant!!…it sums up our discussion of late.

    Let me talk out loud to understand….

    System – remove a part and it fails
    This is not true in orgs, therefore orgs are not systems

    But how true you say that failure in one part (department in an org) may have impact on other parts, and these affected parts have relationships with other parts, so there is an indirect impact effect…which amounts to efficiency and effectiveness.

    So thinking of orgs as systems is a good trick, and this is why I said in your last post:

    “And this comes back to silos in orgs and lack of awareness, therefore not as agile.

    I think social computing tools like networks, microblogs, blogs, forums, wikis are enabling more silo busting, transparency, communication…so we can be more aware and therefore adaptive.”

    Org’s may not break when a part fails, but because parts have relationships there is impact…therefore being aware and cooperative is going to lead to agility….really, awareness, communication, transparency is all we’ve got! …and we achieve this via open conversations.

    Unlike some systems like a “car”, orgs are complex as there are unknowns that impact us everyday, whereas a car is complicated “all the parts are known”.

    Org departments are not “knowns” like parts of a car, those car parts are predictable they do the same thing all the time, whereas org departments are made up of people that do rational/irrational things, power wars, motivations/incentives, uneducated, unaware, etc.
    …orgs are unpredictable because people are unpredictable…interactions are just that “interactions”, we don’t know what we are gonna get…

    This is why I like Snowden’s work as it understands impact units have on other units, but it also understands it’s all based on interactions, which makes for unpredictability…so the best we have is conversation, awareness, and creating conditions to adapt the organisation so the impact of one part on the other can be mitigated.

  5. Bas Reus said, on November 5, 2009 at 14:32

    @Howard, thanks for pointing towards John Seddon, as I’d never came across his thinking on the subject.

    @John, I like your differentiation between complex and complicated. You’ve mentioned that before, and it really distinguishes between the unknown/unseen/unpredictable and known/seen/predictable. Complicated issues are hard to understand, but they can be understood by us humans. Complex issues can’t be understood, because we don’t know what we’re talking about really. Which makes it interesting to discuss, and brings many insights which we can agree or disagree upon, but no one really knows the ‘truth’, if there exists a single one to begin with.

  6. Tom Gibbons said, on November 5, 2009 at 20:14

    A lot has been written on this topic and I have not been able to stay abreast while I was on the road the last couple of weeks but an experience in those past 2 weeks seems to resonate here. We did a presentation at the OD Network conference in Seattle called Complex Responsive Processes – Challenging Systems Thinking –

    We had a very neat crowd of attendees and one woman came in and said she wanted to come to our session since her company was really big on systems thinking and she was being told she was too idealistic and unrealistic and needed to get on board with the systems thing. Given the title of our session perhaps she was looking for ammunition to fight back with.

    Nevertheless her experience is interesting and I think a good comment on systems thinking from a very practical perspective. In my experience, systems thinking firmly establishes mainstream thinking in organizations and much of this thinking is problematic. This thinking assumes things like a knowable, predictable future, that change is a planned, deployed process, we live in a linear world, and that paradox requires resolution. Many people that are systems thinking advocates would say that systems thinking is not about these things at all, but in my experience this is exactly where it leads. I suppose my experience could be labeled as the systems archetype ‘fixes that fail’!

    I resist the notion of systems thinking; not so much from a conceptual perspective but from what I see it producing in the way of thinking of those that use it. What is really interesting is that if you push systems thinking far enough 2 polarities tend to emerge, both described by the participant in our session. One polarity is that systems thinking will find you a concrete answer; it is a logical and analytical tool. The other is that it leads you to the mystical, in that each system builds on another more complex one until you just have to say something magical or mystical is happening (often referred to as infinite regress). I imagine our participant was at this end of the polarity and her company at the other. I find most die hard systems thinkers go to the mystical (i.e. Senge’s book Presence).

    I just find it better for me to do away with the idea and concept of systems thinking because I think we need different thinking now. I think it is time to move beyond systems and imagine what life might be like without them. What life is like as a process.

  7. Chris Rodgers said, on November 5, 2009 at 22:34

    Hi Bas,

    Thanks for including the link to the post on my Informal Coalitions blog, which outlines why I see organizations as complex social processes, rather than as systems – whether “complex adaptive” ones or otherwise. In this, I would wholly agree with Tom Gibbons’s comment (can I say “wholly”?!).

    Whilst I would argue that organizations are not systems, I would readily concede that they do have systems – management systems of various kinds – that have been designed to achieve specific organizational objectives. These ‘global designs’ are the emergent outcomes of ‘local’ (i.e. one-to-one and small-group) interactions; and, in turn, these both enable and constrain ongoing sensemaking and action taking.

    It is this notion of “system” to which John Seddon is referring when he uses the phrase “systems thinking”. His is a very practical exposition of the impact that such systems have on organizational performance; it has little connection, in my view, with Peter Senge’s conception of systems thinking. As Howard suggests (above), Seddon’s work is well worth reading. It offers some great insights into the detrimental effect that many of the seemingly ‘commonsense’ management systems have had on organizational performance, especially (but by no means exclusively) in the public sector.

    Cheers, Chris.

  8. Chetan Dhruve said, on November 7, 2009 at 06:28

    Bas, I completely disagree with the statement that “Organizations are not systems.” Here’s why.

    A system is an entity that exists because of the interactions among its parts. Without the interactions, there is no system (ie a pile of sand). Hence, every relationship between two people (or more) is a system.

    Organizations are fundamentally composed of human interactions – hence organizations are systems too (if human beings in an organization don’t interact, we effectively have a pile of human beings).

    If there are more than two people in the system, the removal of one person apparently doesn’t make the system disappear. I would argue that indeed, the old system has disappeared (say, one with four people) and a different one (with three people) has come into existence.

    Hence, given that human relationships are systems, every organization is really a collection of many systems, turning into a large system itself.

    Chetan Dhruve
    Author, Why Your Boss is Programmed to be a Dictator
    Using Systems Thinking to understand boss behaviour

  9. Tom Gibbons said, on November 7, 2009 at 19:33

    Chetan’s post pretty much illustrates why I have moved away from systems thinking and the concept of ‘system’, particularly where human interaction is involved. As soon as systems are mentioned you typically fall into very low value conversations. At the risk of doing just that I would like to make a few points.

    Chetan’s statement; ‘A system is an entity that exists because of the interactions among its parts. Without the interactions, there is no system (i.e. a pile of sand). Hence, every relationship between two people (or more) is a system.’, is a classic example of how people define systems and in my experience you end up arguing more about the definition than doing anything of value. Of what practical value is it to say that, ‘every relationship between two people (or more) is a system’? To me, every relationship is exactly that, a relationship, calling it a system simply adds more complexity as you now have two ‘things’ to deal with. One is the actual relationship which can be observed as patterns of interaction, and the other is this so called ‘system’ which is an abstraction and often a reification of the process of relationship. The system, as Chetan says, does not exist without the interaction so why bother with it at all? Why spend time looking for this abstraction when the pattern of interactions is right there happening in the living present.

    I have yet to find anyone who has found a ‘system’ when it comes to people interacting that is anything other than the patterning of interactions between people and it is much, much more practical to work with that patterning of interactions than trying to understand this abstraction called a system.

    In my experience calling interactions between people, systems, far too often takes people out of what is really happening, takes people away from taking their actual experience seriously. They move into this abstracted world of systems and deal with what is happening as if it was happening outside of the real interactions they are having and that just makes things harder and more complicated to work with. It also stimulates very traditional thinking about organizations and how they operate. For me, I just don’t find the concept very practical or useful.

  10. […] collaborative spaces, self-organization by Bas Reus on November 12, 2009 The last post about ‘Systems thinking’ again showed differences in understanding of the subject. Mainly when systems thinking is […]

  11. robpatrob said, on November 13, 2009 at 18:45

    Sorry for butting in late – I may also be misunderstanding you. Are you saying that organizations are not “systems”?

    Surely any group of 2 or more people is a system.

    Any group of people interact socially – they also live inside a group filter of a culture, they each have an individual filter which are their values that they learned from people and experiences close to them and they all inhabit the larger culture of the larger group.

    Hofsteder’s work show that All IBMers are not the same – each regional and national group operates very differently – The org chart looks the same – but the human system and how it interacts , how it sees the world is very different.

    The larger culture is affected by the world around them and interacts with the world – for we are now a planetary species that shapes and is shaped by the world – our culture enables us to react properly or not to what confronts us.

    We are the only species to use culture as our main adaptive process – all others have to make physical changes. We used fire, clothes, hunting tools etc to cope with the Ice Age.

    Our culture in organizations also blinds us to opportunities – see what is happening to the media as most are locked into the old and cannot and will not see the alternatives – the history of medicine is full of stories about outright rejection of new things that work – this is not stupidity it is how cultures work.

    Culture not the organization itself is the system that we all swim in. Differences in culture express themselves in what organizations value and hence see and react to.

    Again sorry if I am just butting in and have missed lots of what you have said in the past but I am reacting to your point that “Organizations are not systems”

  12. Chetan Dhruve said, on November 17, 2009 at 06:21

    Tom, I understand where you’re coming from when you say that adding a new word, eg ‘system’, adds a new and apparently unnecessary layer of complexity.

    However, sometimes a new word is necessary so that we use a different lens when trying to understand a particular problem. For example, we can say, “falls” when we drop a ball and it falls onto the ground. However, to understand why the ball falls down, we need another word – gravity. Gravity adds a new layer of complexity, but it is necessary for greater understanding.

    To understand what I mean in the context of human relationships, you could read my manifesto in which I’ve applied Systems Thinking to the boss-subordinate relationship. The manifesto is available on at (or you could read my full book of course!).

    Chetan Dhruve
    Author, Why Your Boss is Programmed to be a Dictator
    Using Systems Thinking to understand boss behaviour

  13. John said, on December 13, 2009 at 02:58

    According to Ackoff: There are four basic types of system depending on whether the parts and the whole can display choice, and therefore, be purposeful.

  14. Rokapchen said, on June 5, 2010 at 14:41

    Try telling the owner of the building that went into a sinkhole that a grain of sand is not a system.

  15. Rokapchen said, on June 5, 2010 at 14:45

    Tom: There are times when use of the term ‘system’ is convenient for the purpose of labeling the whole. But, as you noted the relevant focus is on the connectedness of the relationships.

    The ‘system’ is simply an abstraction of what’s real. The system itself is not.

  16. John Tropea said, on June 6, 2010 at 02:15

    Just to follow on from my previous comments about cars….A photocopier in itself is a complicated system (known knowns). Fix a part and it goes again.

    But the environment it operates in may be complex which makes troubleshooting not so straight forward…

    Read under the heading MYTH OF INTERCHANGEABILITY in my post

  17. Jurgen Appelo said, on June 11, 2010 at 07:58

    “Unlike with systems, there are no two particles alike when humans are involved.”

    I assume by “particles” you mean “agents,” to use proper terminology.

    The notion that different agents in a system should be alike is strange, and not in line with general ideas in complexity science.

    According to your views an ecosystem would also not be a system, because no two species are like the others. Because the very definition of a species _requires_ that it is different from all the others.

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