The Limitations of Systems Thinking – Reflections on our Recent Web Meeting

Tom GibbonsOrganization Development3 Comments

Last week we ran a web meeting titled The Limitations of Systems Thinking.  We had an interesting and diverse group on the call and a few people new to our monthly web meetings.  There was some interesting discussion and this post will review this experience and add some new perspectives.  It’s hoped that this post can continue some of the discussion that began on the web meeting.

What we wanted to engage in during the web meeting was our perspective that Systems Thinking has some very serious limitations in the application to understanding organizations.  From our experience many of the assumptions and the history of systems thinking remain unquestioned and thus the limitations ignored.  Systems thinking is often positioned as the foundation of good Organization Development work and yet in the light of the financial crisis and the rising stress and angst experienced by people in organizations we think it is time to seriously look at how the application of systems thinking to organizational experience may be contributing to the problems within organizations (See web meeting slides here –

There were a couple of things that occurred in the web meeting that were interesting and I think linked.  The first was that there was a comment that if you put any kind of a tool or concept into the hands of a positivist then it will be used in a positivist way.  The general point being made was that if there was a problem with systems thinking it did not have to do with the concept itself, but how people used the concept.  For me this enters into the thorny problem of splitting theory and practice.  I am not a fan of splitting theory and practice and yet I think it is one of the things that systems thinking does.  It gives you the impression that you can step back from your experience of an organization, see it as a system, think about it in abstract terms and then change it in ways so it will perform as desired.  The actual practice of being in the organization is then measured in terms of deviance from what the system should be producing.  If there are problems, it is either with the design of the system or those executing within it.  The actual experience of being in the organization is hardly considered at all.

This distancing of experience allows you to easily dismiss real experience, since it is happening ‘out there’ in some other place and time. 

Later on in the web meeting we got talking about culture and how organizations moved in one direction or another based on its culture and it struck me that our conversation was very much abstracting an organization into an actual entity that had qualities such as movement or a possession called culture.  For me this is another example of splitting off experience into an abstraction that does not really exist.  An organization does not move or have a culture; it is not a thing with thing like qualities.  It is people interacting with each other and the work they do.  It is the day-to-day interactions of people that are the organization.

What was interesting however was how easily we slipped into talking about organizations as things in and of themselves.  We have been thinking about organizations this way for a very long time and it can be very difficult to see them differently.  I think systems thinking fits very well with the current and dominant way we think about organizations and I believe that way of thinking has serious problems.  A primary problem being taking us out of our real experience and into something we call a system.

It can make sense to develop a system to organize activities and tasks.  However if we move away from the concept of systems, in terms of people interacting together, it becomes much easier to be present to our experience, talk together about this experience and move on together.  More or less what we do everyday anyway.

Author – Tom

3 Comments on “The Limitations of Systems Thinking – Reflections on our Recent Web Meeting”

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention The Limitations of Systems Thinking – Reflections on our Recent Web Meeting « TMS Americas --

  2. I’d like to pick up on the experience thread.

    Experience is a dynamic event and yet we reflect on past experience as though it was a stable entity. What we reflect on is what we remember and what we remember can end up twisted, incomplete and maybe erroneous. That is, experience and what we call experience are different. See this TED talk for some insight from the psychological research on happiness.

    So I agree, how can we accurately refer to a system or organization as a stable or known entity? It is an amorphous ever-changing, dynamic and organic expression. I do believe that we can use memory and, even better, careful observation and more non-evaluative qualitative data collection to give us information on which to base decisions and action. The ladder of inference comes to mind – stay at the bottom longer – memory, unfortunately is tainted by the other rungs..

  3. Thanks for the comment Jim.

    The link is a good one I think in that it points out the real difference between what we experience and what we may remember or think about that experience. I think for me what systems thinking does is emphasize the thinking self, as Kahneman calls it, often to the detriment of the actual experiences we have in our organizations. A system in many ways is supposed to define our experience in a very concrete way, and can abstract the actual experience out of reality. I would go as far as to say that even the archetypes of systems made popular by Senge would be very different than what the experiences people actually had would have been like. And probably very different as well as the stories they would tell of their memories of those experiences.

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