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Systems Thinking: Definition and Pro Tips to Apply It at Work

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Problem-solving happens in every workplace, which makes systems thinking a critical part of professional success. Learn more about the process and how to use it to your benefit.

What Is Systems Thinking?

Systems thinking is the process of approaching problems by identifying how different responses will lead to specific outcomes.

There are many steps to systems thinking, so focus on the first one: planning. Systems thinking begins before an action or event happens. The benefit is having responses to various outcomes planned before they occur so you can deal with problems swiftly or avoid them altogether.

It may be easier to visualize this process with a systems thinking diagram. Consider the chart below and break down each part to better understand the circular loop of cause-and-effect systems.

Systems thinking diagram that shows the first step in the process which is identifying the problem or event.

The first step in a systems thinking process is identifying the problem or event. In this case, a customer is unhappy with the meal they ordered at a restaurant. Whether they don’t like the flavor or the kitchen doesn’t prepare it to their liking, the issue is their unhappiness.

The second step is analyzing potential solutions or reactions. The server could fix the problem by bringing the identical meal they ordered, but with the mistake removed. The manager could also do the same thing but pay for both orders on the house.

The third step is to outline the potential effects of each responsive reaction. The customer could have one of four possible reactions in the diagram above. It’s impossible to predict the future, but outlining the four reactions makes it easier to choose the better option from the two responses.

Circular looping comes into play when the customer leaves. If they positively react to the second step’s chosen response, they will likely return to order food again. 

Here is an example of systems thinking: Imagine asking your team to use a new calendar software program to schedule meetings. You could use a systems thinking approach to imagine their responses and problem-solve before any issues arise.

While scheduling meetings, your co-workers might use different color-coding systems within the calendar. You could get ahead of this problem in your training conference or introduction email about the new program by creating a color-coding chart for everyone to use.

They might also need help to use it because they think the program only exists on desktops. Systems thinking would inform everyone upfront that there’s an app version and provide a download link.

Systems thinking approaches will differ in each workplace because they adapt to individual problems and environments. You use it to introduce a new calendar program to your team, while another office might utilize it to streamline customer service solutions to a new product rolling out next year. It depends on your challenges and how your employees, customers, or clients might respond to your proposed solutions.

What Is a Systems Thinking Process?

A systems thinking process is when someone plans specific outcomes and solutions to a problem or change in routine. It begins with identifying an issue or potential change, then considering numerous ways people could react to your solution and how you’d solve any resulting problems. 

When you picture systems thinking, imagine an “if-then” process:

  • If my restaurant adds a new cheeseburger to the menu, people will need to know what comes with it.
  • If I add a description of the cheeseburger to the menu, then people will be likely to try it.
  • If I create a commercial for our new cheeseburger, more people will order it.
  • If more people want to order it, we’ll increase our routine purchase of ground beef to make more cheeseburger patties.

Systems thinkers understand there’s a circular nature to the work and that actions have consequences whether people plan them or not. 

Systems thinking is also a diagnostic resource. It carefully analyzes current environmental, professional, or relational factors that could lead to specific outcomes. That may result in marketing teams using sincere tones in corporate social media posts to build better public relationships1 or co-workers leaving personal problems at home to avoid contributing negativity to their workspace.

Picture systems thinking as a magic tool that pauses time. You can watch yourself take one action when responding to a problem and imagine the result. If you don’t like what happens, you can rewind time and see yourself choose a different method.

Welcome to your first lesson in Systems Thinking Magic 101.

When Should You Try Using Systems Thinking? A Few Examples to Consider

Your brain probably feels fuzzy at this point. Take a few deep breaths to clear any confusion away.

This is a new way of thinking—it may take some practice to get used to! Let’s start at square one with a few helpful examples of systems thinking in different industries.

Ready? Let’s dive into it.

In doctors’ offices

This is an example diagram that demonstrates the process of systems thinking. It begins with identifying the problem or event at hand.

This example demonstrates the process of systems thinking. It begins with identifying the problem or event at hand. Before speaking with the patient, the doctor would consider two potential responsive actions and their possible effects.

The doctor would give their best advice to the patient after going through each step of the systems thinking process. The best option would help someone achieve their goal of recovering while considering their financial capabilities.

In research fields

Systems thinking is also essential in research processes. When a recent team of researchers wanted to discover if there was a potential link between cognitive decline in seniors and heart health, they included five lifestyle factors2 that could affect each participant’s results.

This is an example of how they might use the steps within the systems thinking process to decide how to operate their study and which factors to include.

This is an example diagram of how they might use the steps within the systems thinking process to decide how to operate a study and which factors to include.

Considering those factors across the group made it clear that the overall increase in heart health from various aspects made cognitive decline less likely in senior citizens. Without applying a systems thinking approach, the researchers may not have paused to include as many influencing factors as possible before determining the results of their study. The conclusion would have been much less accurate because it needed more information.

If they hadn’t used systems thinking before beginning their study, the research team might have had an experience like this:

An example diagram of what may have happened if systems thinking wasn't used before beginning a study.

Repeating multiple studies on the same primary question or issue would waste time, resources, and funding. Systems thinking would streamline the best possible study structure to get the most accurate results by thinking through potential actions and consequences.

In the workplace

People in general workplaces may use systems thinking processes without realizing it. It happens when you check your tone of voice to maintain a pleasant demeanor or even when a co-worker does something frustrating. You’re automatically thinking ahead about their reaction. 

If you put the same scenario into a systems-thinking chart, it would look something like this:

An example of a systems thinking diagram in the workplace.

Your co-worker would likely react negatively if you were mean and make the entire workplace tense. Using a friendly tone still conveys your frustration while maintaining a positive relationship that facilitates a better problem-solving environment.

When Is Systems Thinking Not Helpful?

Example 1: Convincing others of your ONE solution

Imagine you’re in an office setting where the kitchen trash can is always full by lunch. It smells, attracts flies, and grosses everyone out. You’re tired of seeing garbage pile up daily, so you advocate for a recycling program. The program would create a second bin for multiple types of waste and reduce how often the trash can fills up.

You use systems thinking to convince your co-workers to join your petition to buy a recycling bin. They listen to your reasoning and even agree that the trash is a problem, but they don’t appreciate feeling pushed into a single solution. Your attempt ultimately doesn’t work because people feel forced to agree with you.

A better use of systems thinking might be gathering your co-workers, explaining your concern about the trash, and asking everyone to identify various responsive reactions. They’d brainstorm solutions, and everyone would agree on the most-preferred option.

Systems thinking is about exploring challenges and innovating solutions—not creating a solution and thinking of ways to convince people to do it.

Example 2: Pointing out something your co-worker did incorrectly

Anyone looking for systems thinking examples can also consider a scenario where you must point out how someone isn’t doing their work correctly. You might use systems thinking to identify the best way to ask your co-worker to manage their email inbox more efficiently.

Even if you pick the kindest, most positive way to point out the problem, your co-worker may not have a solution. Systems thinking addresses chronic issues, not individual mistakes.

Meeting with the co-worker would be the more optimal approach. You could point out how they’re missing important emails that require timely responses, then ask what’s preventing them from managing their inbox more efficiently. The conversation could lead to the co-worker explaining how a workload imbalance makes time management difficult.

The workload imbalance would be the chronic issue at hand. You could brainstorm responses together to achieve an optimal, long-term solution. They might speak with their supervisor about adjusting their workload, which would make inbox management easier and leave time for other responsibilities.

Example 3: Asking for help when creating a solution

Some problems require immediate solutions, but you might not always have any ideas. Picture an IT help desk team implementing a new software program for ticketing. Your co-workers attempt to submit tickets for things like printer problems or video equipment malfunctions in a conference room.

However, they don’t understand the multiple steps involved in the ticketing program, so the IT team is never notified of the technical issues.

An immediate solution would be necessary to solve the problem of backlogged tech problems in the office. A solution may take time to come to mind, so you could sit everyone down and brainstorm together. They might explain needing to use the video equipment for a meeting or print necessary documents before a deadline.

Systems thinking wouldn’t be the optimal response if you can’t think of solutions to the problem. The process requires at least one or two ideas to gauge their effects.

Asking everyone for help to create a solution—such as calling the IT team for each issue—would be more effective than letting the emergency worsen while you try to think of something on your own. A systems thinking approach later could establish potential long-term solutions like an educational meeting to walk everyone through the new ticketing program.

How to Apply Systems Thinking in Your Workplace Today

The best way to apply systems thinking in the workplace is to get everyone involved.

Remember how you were confused when you started reading this article? Your co-workers will likely feel the same way. It’s hard to picture many steps when you haven’t used your brain like this before.

Consider using some of these solutions to teach everyone about systems thinking and make it your team’s go-to solutions tool.

Schedule a team meeting

You could host a meeting where everyone reviews systems thinking and how it works with a helpful presentation. The slides would include charts that break down various situations, especially those that happened recently in your workplace.

Work through a problem together in real time

You could gather your team to work on a non-emergent issue in real time. Lead everyone through the process by labeling the problem on a whiteboard and recording each proposed solution. You could draw a line from each possibility to a potential reaction, making systems thinking clearer.

Explain a recently solved problem so everyone understands how you figured it out

You might solve a problem with a systems-thinking approach and schedule an all-hands meeting afterward. Use this time to explain how you solved the issue with your systems-thinking steps. People will understand how you came to your solution and feel encouraged to replicate the process.

Assign a book or article that explains systems thinking

You could also recommend a few systems thinking books for everyone to read together. Even if your employees only read one, everyone will have the same level of understanding because they had the same material.

Ask for feedback as everyone learns

It’s also essential to encourage feedback from each team member. They should note what they liked or didn’t like about a solution everyone arrived at with the systems thinking method. It’s necessary for refining your communication abilities and the steps everyone takes to use them for group efforts.

These five great tools will help you gather your thoughts and lead your team members through each step of your systems thinking process.

1. Kumu

People use Kumu to gather and organize data for complex causes and effects to analyze. You can categorize text with shapes, lines, and colors to create visual charts for systems thinking uses.

It’s helpful when trying to convey the systems thinking process for selecting problems and creating solutions with positive results. Everyone will see all the data they need on one screen in an organized way.

Fun tip: Match your chart with your company’s brand colors to make your systems thinking resource aligns with your team visually.

2. Loopy

Loopy is one of the most popular systems thinking tools because it’s excellent for presentations. You can create simulations for the what-if questions essential to systems thinking and customize each moving diagram with hand-drawn figures or art. There’s also an option to add models built by other Loopy users, so you can compile your group’s creations to see the individual thinking collectively on a screen.

3. Insight Maker

You can also visualize strategic thinking more clearly with a tool like Insight Maker. It’s a free resource where people make systems dynamics models and causal loop diagrams to understand a complex problem better.

4. SurveyMonkey

Facilitating systems thinking with a group may feel challenging when it’s difficult to hear from everyone before making a final decision. SurveyMonkey lets users develop customizable surveys and get instant feedback.

You could create a survey based on responses from your group to get everyone’s predictions for the final effect of a decision. Their answers could happen in real-time during your next meeting, so the most effective solution is clear before everyone moves on with their day.

5. Canva

While considering using systems thinking tools, try making cause-and-effect diagrams with Canva. It’s a free site for creating content of all kinds, especially if you need to make charts, diagrams, or presentations. Simple text boxes and shapes could demonstrate the steps in your workplace’s systems thinking process for a current challenge and make the right choice clear for everyone.

Still, Confused? Try These Alternatives to Systems Thinking

It’s always helpful to have more than one resource when dismantling a problem and contemplating a long-term solution. In addition to systems thinking, these other approaches could help eliminate chronic issues by yourself or co-workers.

1. Strategic thinking

Instead of focusing on the cause of a problem, you could use strategic thinking to focus on your final goal. Consider how you’d work backward from your objective to your current standing or problem. It may inspire you to reach long-term solutions you wouldn’t have considered without working through the process backward.

Pros: You’ll stay focused on your long-term goal, and every solution will orient toward it.

Cons: Working backward may not work well for individuals who prefer straightforward responses to problems.

Pro Tip: Take your time with this process. Solutions may not come naturally when you’re using a new way of thinking. Stretch your brain by considering multiple responses for each step.

2. Linear thinking

Linear thinkers approach problems by starting at the beginning. They might believe the issue reveals its solutions by analyzing what led to it as a connected series of events. The systematic process and pattern recognition often work best for people who succeed in mathematics, sequencing, and logic.

Pros: Linear thinking aligns with natural rationality by following a problem from beginning to end. It also includes a close look at every factor involved in the issue.

Cons: It’s easier to miss a broader scope of potential solutions because linear thinking closely follows the cause-and-effect approach.

3. Critical thinking

You may solve problems better if you’re into a philosophy that centers on critical thinking. Critical thinkers use their existing skills and knowledge to guide their choices. You might create solutions in the workplace by reflecting on your prior challenges and what you did to resolve them.

Pros: You’ll use previously proven successes to solve current problems. It’s also easier to identify opportunities because you’re always thinking about the effect of your actions.

Cons: You may overthink a problem when confronted with something new and spend more time than necessary on an issue.

FAQs About Systems Thinking

What is the difference between systems thinking and linear thinking?

A systems thinking approach looks closely at the cause of a problem and the interconnections that led to it. Linear thinking would analyze an issue with a broad perspective to focus on the ultimate causes and effects of responding to it in various ways.

What are the benefits of using systems thinking in decision-making?

There are numerous benefits to using systems thinking in decision-making. You’ll understand the root cause of a problem and the factors that led to it. You’ll also have multiple response options to choose from based on the results expected from each one.
You can also use systems thinking tools like survey sites, graphs, and maps to get feedback and visually represent your team’s options so everyone understands what comes next.

When should systems thinking be used?

People should use systems thinking when they need to address a chronic problem with a long-term result. They may also wait to use this approach until everyone on their team exhausts their preferred solutions and feels ready to tackle a problem from a new perspective.

How to apply systems thinking?

Anyone can apply a systems thinking approach by identifying the cause of a problem. List potential reactions to solve the issue and the consequences of those reactions—good or bad. Taking your time and picking the optimal response could lead to a long-term solution.

Best Systems Thinking Books

People can also learn more about systems thinking by reading the most popular books on the topic. These are a few to consider if you’d like to jump into them.

1. Systems Thinking Made Simple: New Hope for Solving Wicked Problems

By Derek Cabrera and Laura Cabrera

The co-authors of Systems Thinking Made Simple teach the concept by explaining four rules. They assert that every circular system uses distinction, systems, relationships, and perspectives to arrive at potential outcomes. It explains the basics of systems thinking so anyone can apply it in everyday life.

2. Complexity: A Guided Tour

By Melanie Mitchell

Systems thinking exists because people have complex reactions based on their behavioral history and primary motivators. Melanie Mitchell explains this foundational concept in her book using illustrative examples like ant farms. She also explains why the human brain has so many connections and how they create reactions to daily interactions.

After reading this book, you may better understand how to predict someone’s reactions based on how you respond to an event or problem.

3. The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization

By Peter M. Senge

In his book, Peter Senge argues that companies can only improve their success and productivity by learning new ways of thinking. He explains how systems thinking is a critical new way to approach problems because it doesn’t wait for results—it creates them by planning each action and its consequences.

Key takeaway: Systems thinking can improve workplaces

Congratulations, you’re now a systems-thinking pro. Keep a few helpful factors in mind when you’re ready to get the rest of your team on the same page:

  • Everyone involved in problem-solving must understand how systems thinking works to use it effectively.
  • Graphics can help illustrate a systems thinking method. 
  • Many useful books are available as helpful resources for people learning about systems thinking.
  • The systems thinking definition changes in each workplace.

Systems thinking can lead to more effective solutions when team members work together to find long-term solutions to chronic problems. 

Want to learn more about how to work with people on workplace challenges? Develop your interpersonal intelligence to read your co-workers better and refine your leadership style to respond more compassionately when problems arise.

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