A Dark Side to Systems Thinking

Tom GibbonsOrganization Development, Presence12 Comments

Over the past number of months I have been following (and in some cases contributing) to discussions on a number of LinkedIn groups that focus on systems thinking.  Many of these groups have hundreds or even thousands of members.

Personally, after many years of working with systems thinking I no longer find the concept of ‘system’ to be of value and I find the typical applications and approaches to systems thinking in organizations quite problematic.  A number of posts on this blog illustrate what I see as those problems as well as alternative ways of understanding and working with people and organizations.

The purpose of joining these LinkedIn groups was to see what was currently being discussed in this area since it is seen as such a critical skill and approach to organizational development work.  Indeed it is assumed that if you don’t apply some type of systems methodology you can’t really be doing OD work effectively.  Part of my investigation was to see what the discussions were so I could more effectively communicate and promote alternative methods.

Along the way I discovered what I would call a dark side to systems thinking.

One of the things that is a necessary requirement of systems thinking is the existence of a system.  While this may seem like a bit of a ‘duh’ the existence of a system means you define some kind of a boundary around what you are looking at so you can try to understand what is happening within that boundary.  With systems thinking you then stand back from what you have defined as the system and try and figure it out.  This can take many forms and has numerous methodologies attached to it but one thing is common to them all; you remove yourself from what is happening to observe and understand what is going on.

It is this separation that becomes a dark side to systems thinking.  First, it is highly problematic to assume that we can remove ourselves from what is happening.  It creates the illusion of complete objectivity and, therefore, certainty and predictability. 

Secondly, there seemed a strong resistance to a real debate around the pros and cons of systems thinking.  A common theme (both explicit and implied) in many of the discussions surrounding systems thinking was that those that did not understand and apply systems thinking were inadequate in some fashion – resistant, uninformed, sadly lacking in knowledge or even downright stupid.  To me, many, many of the contributors to these discussions took a very elitist position; that they were separate and distinct from the great unwashed who did not understand the nuance and art of systems thinking let alone the tremendous benefits its applications would bring. 

Much like the distance required to observe a ‘system’ many contributors held a distance from those who didn’t think their way, seemingly hoping that some day, they would see the light.

I realize these are strong words, but as I read some of these discussions I was offended, angry, and troubled.  Systems thinking is almost an unquestioned way of seeing the organizational world with thousands of OD professionals espousing its value.  It seems to continue to get more and more complicated, with more and more methodologies to apply it, creating more and more distance from what is actually happening between people in our organizations.  When that distance becomes an elitist position it feels like a very problematic dark side.

If we put aside the concept of systems we also put aside a method of abstraction.  Without abstractions we are forced to be present to what is actually happening and not be separate from it.  And within that present moment, along with those we are there with, we will move forward together, we will do our best to make sense of things and we do what we think is right, good or bad.

We may or may not find value in systems thinking in that moving forward but at least we would be engaged and present enough to consider the question.

Author – Tom

12 Comments on “A Dark Side to Systems Thinking”

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  2. I would agree that abstraction is needed for reflection and understanding. What I do find however is that the level of abstraction that systems thinking often creates and requires virtually eliminates any focus on what is actually happening in the interaction between people. I think a good balance is needed and ST too often loses this balance.

  3. Please don’t think that the experiences you’ve had with narrow minded practitioners on forums is representative of the whole community. The the points you have raised are indeed valid and have been taken seriously.

    “First, it is highly problematic to assume that we can remove ourselves from what is happening. It creates the illusion of complete objectivity and, therefore, certainty and predictability.”

    Many leading softsystems thinkers totally agree with your claim about objectivity. See Prof. Peter Checkland (Softsystems Methodology) and Prof. Mike Jackson (Total Systems Intervention).

    “Secondly, there seemed a strong resistance to a real debate around the pros and cons of systems thinking. A common theme (both explicit and implied) in many of the discussions surrounding systems thinking was that those that did not understand and apply systems thinking were inadequate in some fashion”

    I’ve observed this ‘know it all’ / closed trait too. Unfortunately it occurs in many different ‘expert communities’ not just systems thinking. Systems thinking actually teaches the opposite e.g. open mindness, questioning the status-quo, … See the work of Chris Argyris on double-loop learning or John Seddon. Both are again systems thinkers.

    If you want to know more about Soft-system approaches follow me on tweeter. I often tweet about the Soft-systems approaches and associated thinking. http://twitter.com/dsg22

  4. I really appreciate your comment Dave. I knew when I was writing this post that there were significant ‘gaps’ of perspective. One being that I certainly do not think that my recent experiences on these forums is indicative of all people involved with ST.

    It was a choice however to leave those gaps, one reason to keep the post a reasonable length but more importantly for me was to really focus on a key problem I see with the concept of system, that being the ‘distance’ from experience that the concept of system can create. An elitist perspective is just one consequence, one that I have referred to as a dark side.

    For me the concept of system is an unnecessary abstraction that creates unnecessary distance from the here and now of what is happening. I do think abstraction is necessary for greater understanding but I do not think it is necessary to use the concept of system to do that. The applications of ST that I have seen (and used) create this distance. While I have not studied soft systems methodology extensively it seems to do a similar thing. While it has added greatly to first order ST in its inclusion of the messiness and uncertainty of human interaction it still seems to give the impression of only expanding the boundary of a system for that inclusion. The system is more complex but it’s still there with the assumption you can stand outside of it and observe.

    When I look at what many prominent systems thinkers are doing in our world right now I think it is very good and valuable work. What I fail to see is a connection to what they are actually doing and a fit with what they describe as their approach to ST. The intent seems to get lost in the description. What I see too often happening then is that people try and apply what is described as ST and it fails or is discarded due to its complexity.

    So for me, I applaud this good work and hope it continues. I also hope that we find more room to consider alternative ways of seeing and understanding our organizations and world. One of those alternatives is without the concept of system.

    1. I look forward to your future posts on the topic of alternative ways of seeing and understanding organisations and the world.

      I too ask myself what the concept of a system when used as an abstraction is abstracting away? And secondly whether what is being abstracted away would be informative if kept? The trite answer is of course that it’s abstracting away some complexity or complicatedness. But of course this broad brushed answer is not satisfactory to me as without knowing exactly what is being ignored (abstracted away) it is difficult to then go about checking whether I really want to throw this information away.

      Of course as humans our perceptions of the world themselves are limited as we view the world through our own conceptual lens and theories e.g. theory-laden observation. So we can never have an objective or neutral view of anything.

      So I have come to the conclusion that all we can do is be aware of our limitations and experiment with different and at time radical views of the world to see what they bring to our thinking. Mike Jackson discusses this to some extent in his book: Systems Thinking: Creative Holism for Managers.

      Also some practitioners (like Ulrich) have explored ‘boundary critique’ which questions the legitmacy of the boundary as defined by an analyst and attempts to understand how the drawing up of the boundary may marginalise stakeholders.

      More generally critical systems thinkers have been attacking the concept of the system for understanding the organisational world and have been attempting to find something better. Mike Jackson also discusses this to some extent in his book: Systems Thinking: Creative Holism for Managers.

      I hope you might find some ammunition from the references in this post to find an alternative and insightful way of thinking about the world.

  5. What a breath of fresh air! II resonate strongly with what you have written Tom. I believe an OD intervention is pretty much like rock climbing.

    You bring with you the skillset of having climbed a lot of rock-faces, with the knowledge that no two faces are alike, and while there are broad general guidelines you need to follow, there is no ONE system that can get you across every rock-face.

    One has to become one with the rock-face, resonate with it’s uniqueness, treat it with respect, respond with care, and handle in specific context. Those are the keys I think.

    Loved your post! Thanks!

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  8. That’s a good article. I noticed a lot of the same things.

    On the other hand, a problem with “calling it all an abstract”, is that sometimes someone really IS trying to bring attention to some aspect of a discussion topic (like building a dam) that a policy might be haphazardly overlooking.

    I found a funny example of the “dark side” in a Voltaire article, “The Concatenation of Events” where he points out real problems with the whole “Everything effects Everything” way of thinking…it leads to looking for small and distant causes to everything, and in his day, a lot of scapegoating.

  9. Hi Tom, i would recommend digging a little into constructivism as by Heinz von Foerster or even more “radical” Ernst von Glasersfeld; that overcomes the problem of “drawing a distinction” or at least makes it a workable issue.

    1. Thanks Peter. Social construction is important to the way I view things and also one of the challenges as it can move very close to relativism. Nevertheless I find I would rather deal with that challenge than many of the conversations I find happening in the systems thinking arena.

      Your suggestions for further study are appreciated.

  10. A bit late to this topic – but I would stress that true systems thinking can only be altruistic. Additionally, confining a system to itself is the first flaw. True systems thinking recognizes one system but solves with the knowledge of all systems. If all systems are applicable, then no systems (bounded systems) exist.

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