the decision blog

seven paradigms of systems thinking

Written on

Suppose there's a sense of unease at an organization you work for or in your personal life. There's definitely a problem, but even formulating what that problem is seems difficult. For concreteness, we'll stick with the example of an organization, though it's important to remember that systems thinking ideas are also relevant to improving our decision making as individuals in our personal lives.

So then, perhaps the organization's management is widely perceived as being ineffective or not as effective as it could be. Perhaps different parts of the organization don't seem to be learning from one other enough or at all. The environment in which the organization finds itself has become turbulent and no one knows what to do about it. Maybe there's a mess that combines all these things and more.

This kind of scenario is what the different schools of systems thinking were created to address; in future posts, I'll be describing each of these approaches in turn, the situations each is ideally suited for, and how to combine the different approaches with one another for maximum effect. Most of what I will be writing in this area follows M.C. Jackson's book on critical systems thinking1.

But before delving into the specific systems thinking frameworks, it's vital to discuss the major paradigms or ways of viewing the world that underlie them. To get the most benefit out of systems thinking, we'll need to become adept at inhabiting each of the paradigms, switching between them, and criticizing each from the perspectives of the others. It's important to mention that each paradigm has deep roots in philosophy and the social sciences, and that ideally we would want to immerse ourselves in that material as well. I plan to write about these roots later, after we have an overall map of the territory and an idea of how things work.

The first paradigm to discuss is that of the machine: We view the organization under consideration as an assemblage of moving parts that takes certain inputs and produces certain outputs. To be functioning correctly, the parts of the machine need to be coordinated to produce the desired outputs and produce them efficiently. This kind of thinking can be very powerful; at the same time, it's important to know that many people naturally fall into this approach automatically when engaging in systems thinking, and that doing so can be harmful. For example, treating people as if they were machine components can lead to disastrous consequences.

A second and very powerful paradigm is that of the organism: We view the system in question as an organism that needs to adapt to a complex, changing environment in order to survive and thrive in the world. For a living creature to be healthy, its parts need to individually be healthy and functioning in harmony with one another. The organism has to be able to sense (at least to some extent) if there's a problem internally and track changes that are occurring around it. Living things also modify their immediate environments, in a sense creating their own micro-climates, to make it easier for their needs to be met. This paradigm emphasizes the functions that the parts perform for the sake of the whole.

Third, there is the cultural paradigm: We view the organization as a collection of individuals who give meaning to the situations in which they find themselves; this meaning-creation gives rise to habitual ways of thinking and acting, social structures that in turn can influence individuals and their perceptions, in a kind of feedback loop. For an organization to succeed as a cultural entity, there need to be ways of ensuring that the people in it have enough of a shared vision of the organization's purpose that it doesn't fall into chaos; there need to be ways of fostering helpful modes of collective behavior and attenuating unhelpful ones. Also, there is a crucial balance to be sought between maintaining order on the one hand and encouraging originality and creativity on the other.

The fourth paradigm is political, and invites us to view the organization as a collection of factions that have different worldviews and whose purposes will sometimes be at odds with one another. The organization will require effective means to resolve disputes fairly and find enough common ground between the different coalitions so that progress can still be made. This paradigm pays attention to how power is obtained, how it's used, and who has how much of which kind. Power is often distributed in hierarchies, both intentionally and not; being unaware of such dynamics is to be controlled by it, and usually to maintain a status quo that favors those holding the most power.

Pondering unequal distribution of power leads us to our fifth systems view, called the coercive paradigm: Some groups within the organization are not given a seat at the decision making table or, if they are, their views are nevertheless not taken seriously. Sometimes people who are excluded may not even be aware that they are being treated unfairly. Under this paradigm, those who are oppressed need to, if necessary, be made aware of it and be given tools to aid in making their voices be heard. An intervention is successful to the extent that it succeeds in emancipating the oppressed.

Returning to the organismal view and focusing on the effects that an organism has on its surroundings leads to the sixth, environmental, paradigm: Organizations exist in environments that contain other organizations, forming an ecosystem; neglecting consideration of the environment, or of the goals of other organizations, or of whether the organization under consideration's goals are aligned with those of society at large, would be a big mistake: If an organism poisons its own environment then it can't survive; if it works against the interests of the ecosystem as a whole then other entities will likely align themselves against it.

The seventh paradigm is that of interconnectedness: All of the above paradigms are interconnected with one another. Power structures can determine culture, both can determine whether the parts of an organization are functioning in harmony together; these things in turn can affect how well an organization acts as a steward of its environment, etc. We are successful under this paradigm to the extent that we are able to see the entire system as a whole. This last ideal is just that: An ideal. It's impossible to have a god's-eye-view and see everything that could possibly be relevant together with all interactions. However, in doing our best to approach this ideal, we do much better than if we did not try.

There are other paradigms that are important to know: Postermodernist and feminist come immediately to mind. But we will leave our description of paradigms for now, because the ones at our disposal are adequate to describe where each of the systems approaches that we will be discussing is coming from. Again, in using each of these approaches it will be important to mentally inhabit that approach's associated paradigm as fully as possible. Otherwise, the most likely outcome is that we subconsciously slip into acting in the service of only one paradigm, which in turn will render our systems interventions sub-optimal.

Discuss on Twitter

  1. Jackson, M.C., Critical systems thinking and the management of complexity (2019), Wiley.