Systems thinking is about systems. Much has been written about systems: the interdependence of the parts, the fact that the whole is more than a sum of its parts, the constantly changing nature of dynamic systems, etc.
But systems thinking is just as profoundly about thinking. A full appreciation of systems thinking requires a thoughtful examination of thinking. Thinking is about mental processes that take place in the brain/body system. There are a number of well recognized mental processes, including three with particular relevance for systems thinking: analysis, synthesis, and holism.
Analysis is a three step mental process which leads to an awareness of the constituent parts of anything intellectual or substantial. The steps are:
take the thing apart,
determine what the parts are and do, and
reassemble the parts to reestablish the whole.
Knowledge is a direct by-product of analysis. Analysis treats any conceptual whole as the same as the sum of its parts.
The mental process synthesis involves the combining of separate parts or elements to form a coherent whole.
Holistic thinking involves perceiving a coherent whole as primary, the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. The holistic approach argues that the nature and purpose of the whole can best be understood when it is viewed as a whole, rather than taken apart. Accordingly the purpose of a system is its role or function in a larger system that contains it. The larger system therefore provides an environment for the system under study.
Systems thinking entails a three step mental process:
studying the parts of a system,
perceiving the system as a whole, and
developing an awareness of the role or function of the system in a larger containing system.
This three step process yields understanding and explains a systems relationship to an environment that contains it.
Brain Physiology and Thought Processes
In 1982 Dr. Roger Sperry won the Nobel Prize for his work in brain physiology and the processes involved in thinking. His findings evolved from work with epileptic patients. These patients had the right and left hemispheres of their brains surgically separated to provide relief from epileptic seizures.
In 1976 Sperry, in collaboration with Robert Ornstein, had published clinical evidence that certain thought processes originated in either the right or left hemisphere of the brain. A summary of this evidence is shown below:
Sperry concluded that analysis is a dominant mental process of the left hemisphere, whereas holistic and synthetic thought processes are right hemisphere mental activities. These mental activities represent varying thinking style approaches to perceiving and assimilating data. We call these approaches preferences. They operate in the same way that a right handed person spontaneously uses her right hand to catch a ball, open a door, write a note.
A person may develop competency in using any thought process, but the naturally preferred styles will be automatic and most comfortable.
While he was a manager at General Electric in the 1980’s, physicist Ned Herrmann developed a validated instrument to determine thinking style preferences. (A good description of this tool is available in the July/August 1997 Harvard Business Review, in the article titled, “Putting Your Company’s Whole Brain To Work”).
The Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI) divides the brain into a metaphorical model. The upper, or cerebral, hemisphere is the place of logic and analysis as well as holistic and synthetic thought processes. The lower, or limbic, hemisphere is associated with organization, need for control, emotions and interpersonal relations.
Herrmann created a model of the relationships between cerebral (upper) and limbic (lower) thought processes illustrated below:
The relationships have been simplified by Herrmann into the four quadrant model shown next.
One’s thinking style profile is derived from first answering a 120 question survey. The questions relate to one’s thinking style preferences and are distributed over the four quadrants. Scores for each quadrant are plotted on diagonal lines that intersect at a zero point in the middle. A high score plotted in a quadrant indicates a high preference for the thinking style of that quadrant. The following brain dominance profiles illustrate some typical thinking styles.
The Thinking Requirements of Systems Thinking
In the fall of 1993 Dr. Russell Ackoff, speaking at the Systems Thinking in Action Conference, shared the following idea: “Systems thinking is the fusion of analysis, synthesis, and holism and reveals both knowledge and understanding.”
Why did he say this? Knowledge involves knowing what something is about. Knowledge is about content. Understanding includes looking at the component parts of a whole and studying the whole in relation to its environment or context.
When it is recalled that knowledge is derived from analytical thought processes and understanding from synthesis, and holistic thinking, then Ackoff’s definition of “systems thinking” takes on fresh meaning in the context of the Herrmann four quadrant model.
The Natural Systems Thinker
The mental preferences of the natural systems thinker are upper left and upper right, including both analysis, synthesis and holism. Individuals with this profile find systems thinking easy. They move freely and naturally from an awareness of the constituent parts of the world to the emergent patterns of behavior arising from the dynamic wholeness of it all.
It follows that if you have a preference for analysis but not for synthesis, you can be sure that the quality of the analysis is superb, but may not find the “big picture” synthesis easy. If you have a preference for synthesis and holism but not analysis, you will need to depend on natural analyzers, but can play an important role in pulling the whole together. If your preference is in the lower hemisphere, you may find systems thinking fascinating, but something like a foreign language.
Many of the problems individuals and organizations face today are systems problems that do not yield solutions no matter how intensely the problems are analyzed.
An appreciation of the fact that there are natural systems thinkers acknowledges what many who have worked in this field already know. Anyone can be interested in and contribute meaningfully to a systems thinking approach, but including the natural systems thinkers who do this easily helps organizations move surely toward high leverage solutions to tough systems problems.