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What is systems thinking?


According to Smith (2022), systems thinking is a way of understanding and analyzing complex systems, such as organizations, ecosystems, and societies. The main methodologies for systems thinking include systems dynamics, which focuses on how feedback loops and stocks and flows can affect the behavior of a system over time, and soft systems methodology, which is a holistic approach that considers the human and social aspects of a system (Smith, 2022).

The origins of systems thinking can be traced back to the work of early philosophers and scientists, such as Aristotle and Galileo, who studied the relationships between different elements in natural and social systems. The development of systems thinking as a distinct field of study, however, is generally credited to the work of scientists and scholars in the mid-20th century, such as Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Kenneth Boulding, and Ilya Prigogine. These scholars developed theories and methodologies for understanding complex systems, such as thermodynamics, cybernetics, and systems dynamics, which laid the foundation for modern systems thinking.

The main components of a system are the elements that make up the system and the relationships between those elements. These components can include the inputs, outputs, processes, and feedback mechanisms that operate within the system. In systems thinking, the components of a system are typically represented using a stock and flow diagram, which shows the flow of resources and information within the system and how they affect the system's behavior over time.

One of the major concepts regarding systems thinking is the concept of borders. Borders are relevant to systems thinking in several ways. First, borders can be seen as boundaries or barriers within a system that define the limits of the system and differentiate it from other systems. For example, the border between two countries defines the limits of each country's political and economic system, and affects the flow of goods, people, and information between the two countries. In this sense, borders can be seen as elements of a system that influence the behavior of the system by defining its boundaries and relationships with other systems.

Second, the concept of borders can also be relevant in systems thinking when considering the interactions and relationships between different parts of a system. In a complex system, such as an ecosystem or a social network, the borders between different sub-systems or components can be seen as points of connection or exchange, where the flow of resources or information can affect the behavior of the system as a whole. For example, the borders between different species in an ecosystem can be seen as points of interaction, where the flow of energy and nutrients can affect the behavior of the species and the ecosystem as a whole.

Overall, the concept of borders is relevant to systems thinking because it highlights the importance of boundaries and relationships within a system and how these elements can affect the behavior of the system over time.

The main methodologies for systems dynamics include the use of causal loop diagrams, which show the relationships between different variables in a system and how they influence each other, and stock and flow diagrams, which model the flows of resources and information within a system and the way that they affect the system's behavior over time. Other methodologies used in systems dynamics include computer simulations, mathematical modeling, and the use of feedback loops to understand the behavior of complex systems.

In my next posts we will explore the methodologies for implementing systems thinking in an attempt to make systems thinking the sharpest tool in the CEO's toolbox.

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