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  • Writer's pictureFunmilola Asa

Practical System Thinking Principles - Part I

Complex systems are all around us including technical and socio-technical life systems in individuals, business, governance and other spheres. Principles on the other hand, are foundational truths that establish behaviors across a wide range of applications. As we journey to explore 10 key principles that help understand and design life systems, let's explore the first three fundamental principles of system thinking....

Happy New Year 2022,

In this first blog for the year, I commence a series that discusses core systems principles with practical applications as it pertains to self, personal development, relationships, businesses, governance, and a general approach to life. It is the first of a four-part blog in which I share 10 key principles extracted from my leanings about systems and which I find applicable, and in fact critical to all aspects of life where there are combinations of elements, processes, people interacting within a complex socio-technical system. The goal of the series is to help you understand the key concepts of system thinking to allow more efficient application in day-to-day decision making and longer-term goal setting and delivery.

Just as an architect can conceptualize a building from ground up based on an understanding of foundational concepts, so also is an understanding of key system principles important to crafting new systems – relationships, business, career path, etc., or optimizing existing ones or even fixing broken ones to ensure the best output and behaviors of the ‘system’. A system that is designed wrongly creates future manageability challenges. For instance, decisions made in early career can potentially lead down a path that would need significant efforts to course-correct after several years of working experience due to additional interactions over the course of the career, which sometimes makes some people stuck in undesirable jobs / careers. Given that we are surrounded by complex systems with increasing complexity, it is very important that we focus on what makes complex systems tick so that we can ensure the best value delivery from these systems.

A system that is designed wrongly creates future manageability challenges

System Thinking allows us to manage complex problems by breaking them into manageable sizes while keeping sight of the whole. Regardless of the type of system in focus, some key principles apply universally. A true understanding of these principles helps to set up an efficient system as opposed to being reactive or obtaining sub-optimal results out of the interactions within the system and with the ‘environment’ in which the system exists.

In this post I share 3 of 10 principles. Here goes...

PRINCIPLE 1: The System as a synergy of subsystems –The unique characteristic of a system is the behavior enabled by the interactions between its constituent parts or subsystems that create emergent properties, such as value and/or interface issues, which must be identified and managed in designing such a system

The distinguishing factor between a collection of parts, people, components, etc and the resulting system is the combination of such parts which results in interactions to achieve a function or purpose by the system. Aristotle helps us put the system concept into context in his quote – “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. Hence, to understand a system that consists of a connection of two parts, you must understand the “and” arising from the addition of one and one (adapted from Donella Meadows). In System Language, “1 + 1 = 2 + Ix” (where I = systemic interaction; x = multiplier effect) …Funmilola Asa.

So, in day-to-day application, an example would be the human system which comprises of the many subsystems such as the digestive system, nervous system and others that must interact with one another in a certain pattern for the individual to function effectively. The individual is only complete when all parts are working together. In a similar case, a business that comprises of multiple teams such as the sales, operations, marketing, and others can only be addressed as the "business" if all the parts are functioning together. Hence, if each team were assessed standalone, and you attempt to add their outputs together, a component of the business’ identity is missing in that separation. In addition, the context of the interaction is important. If there is efficient interaction between the teams, then the behavior of the business differs from one in which there is a glitch in communication between two critical departments such as sales and marketing or sales and operations even though they are technically working towards the same purpose of meeting customers’ needs.

....In System Language, “1 + 1 = 2 + Ix” (where I = systemic interaction; x = multiplier effect)....

Hence, the performance of the system is determined by the interaction and the multiplier effect of the context in which the interactions happen, which results either in value delivery or interface issues. Therefore, questions must be asked with any new addition to the components of a system to ensure that the additional interaction as a result of the new component creates additional value delivery that is more that the effect of that unit being standalone. Otherwise, the addition should be questioned as the whole of any system - relationship, career, personal development, etc., must always be more than the sum of the parts for it to be a valuable system.

Now that we have discussed the concept of the synergy of the subsystems, the next principle describes the basis for a good system architecture / design given that a system must be integrated to achieve a given purpose or function.

PRINCIPLE 2: Addressing key stakeholder(s) needs effectively is the basis for Good System Architecture - A ‘Good System Design’ in terms of the structure, behavior, and views of the system must roll up into a concept that expressly addresses the explicit and implicit needs of key stakeholders otherwise it may be ‘answering a question that was not asked’.

In my inaugural blog post, I ask the question “Delivering value to your stakeholder(s)?”, identifying how fundamental it is to a system that the key stakeholders are identified, and how an understanding of how the stakeholders measure value is critical. Since the goal of any system is to achieve a purpose, the structure of the system and the interactions of the subsystems within the system must be done in such a way that its addressees the stated and observed needs of the true customers of the system. Given that stakeholders of a particular system may vary, trade-offs may be required in determining the best system behavior. Hence, the more upfront clarity is available of the stakeholder needs, the more efficiently the trade-offs can be made to ensure that the final system delivers the most value possible.

A practical example of understanding stakeholder needs is seen in the movie “Where’s you go Bernadette?” which describes how an architect tackled the basic assignment of laying out bathrooms in the Executive wing of the Team Disney Building by asking questions such as how often the executives met, what time of day, the ratio of men to women, etc. When asked why she had those many questions, she said “I need to know what problem I am solving with my design”. If this understanding is not available, you could have a great system design that is answering a question that was not asked. The value produced at the boundary of a system must match the needs of key stakeholders. The person that is paying for a design or good may not be the actual user of the design. As such a system should be design with a clear understanding of the stakeholder dependence in determining the value that such system offers.

...The value produced at the boundary of a system must match the needs of key stakeholders....

Think of a ‘family system’ with stakeholders such as the spouses and children. If the design of the family system in terms of the structure and behavior of the family does not meet the needs, for example, of quality time for the children but instead delivers quality education and choice gifts, the output may be rejected by these key stakeholders. It is not uncommon to learn of children of well-to-do individuals who have benefitted from the choicest of upbringings to deliberately become wayward and turn to crime because they did not receive the attention of their parents. Other examples would be of governments proffering state-of-the-art facilities in places where the basic needs of food and shelter have not been met. Such facilities are often cannibalized, sold for scrap to get the funds to meet the basic needs of food. Several practical examples exist that highlight the importance of defining stakeholder needs as the basis for system design.

It is not uncommon for stakeholder needs to evolve over time like the varying needs of children as they transit from toddlers through to teenagers and then unto adulthood. As such, beyond the initial design of the system, as with a building, there may be need for remodeling to match the new needs of the true customers of the system to ensure that the system is relevant for the long haul. In yet another movie example “Late Night”, the importance of understanding evolving stakeholder needs was demonstrated when the ratings of a long-term award-winning talk show host had slid significantly to the point where she was about to lose her show. The breakthrough happened when she realized in her words, that “I have not changed, the audience has changed… so let’s give them what they want”. This is true for business, governance, relationships, and all kinds of complex systems in dynamic environments.

With the understanding of the critically of stakeholder needs to system design and value proposition, the next question is then one that focuses on how to design the system to meet this need. This creates a perfect segue to the third principle. So, here you go:

PRINCIPLE 3: Solution Neutrality as a first step for robust system designs – In order to benefit from the full window of creative solutions to any problem, the architectural concepts must first be defined by the possible solution-neutral ways in which the initial problem can be addressed before layering on technology options that help achieve the concepts.

The logical next step to addressing a need to is to define the solution to meet such a need. A system’s behavior which is defined by the sub-system interaction is the expected response to the identified stakeholder(s) needs. Hence it is important that the arrangements of the internal parts of a system (such as the departments/functions within a business, the arms of governance, the career development components, etc.) are done in a way that the interactions created results in the most optimal output from the system.

Zoning in too quickly on the means to solve a problem without first understanding the core problem to be addressed and the most universal method-agnostic way to address the problem often results in being blind-sided to other creative and potentially more efficient ways to achieve the underlying solution. Some organizations have bloated teams when smaller teams could deliver the same service efficiently if approached differently. A common trap in design is to have a pre-conceived concept of how to address the design challenge without actively exploring other ways to achieve the same goal. is important that the arrangements of the internal parts of a system are done in a way that the interactions created results in the most optimal output from the system...

Solution Neutrality ensures creativity in the development of solutions to the questions of stakeholder needs that the system seeks to answer by allowing the exploration of a robust spectrum in identifying the final solution. It is a process of breaking down the stakeholder's need to the most basic definition and identifying the concept that addresses the need before layering on technological or other constraints. Solution-neutrality states that if there was no context, what is the true definition of meeting the identified need? It is probably what proffered the options of online stores when physical stores were considered the only options by many, alongside many other disruptions. In another previous blog post I ask the question of “how disruptive, really, is what we call disruptive change?”. In that post, I highlighted the role of solution-neutrality in identifying out-of-the-box solutions due to an understanding of the true need that the system is looking to address. It helps to answer the ‘What’ question first before thinking of the ‘How’. It is critical for any type of system to be defined by its solution-neutral value-proposition as it also helps with identifying creative solutions when attempting to optimize such a system and its components in the face of evolving stakeholder needs in dynamic environments.

So, bringing it all together...

I have shared the first 3 out of 10 key principles of systems that are critical to ensuring that systems are designed and optimized to consistently deliver optimum value. In the next blog, I will share 2 more principles of system thinking. In the meantime, some key questions to ask are “Do I understand the sub-parts of this ________ system and the unique interactions that are driving the emergent behaviors?”,” What is the unique value proposition of the combination or are the parts better off separate?”, “Who are the key stakeholders of this system and what are their true needs?”, “Have the stakeholder needs been optimally traded off to ensure that the system provides net positive value?”, “Do I understand the solution-neutral value-proposition of my system?”, and “Am I identifying creative options for the system or am I being blind-sided to key options that are more efficient?”.

Wishing you a transformational journey ahead.

Funmilola (Funmi)

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1 Comment

Ayoade Lawrence
Ayoade Lawrence
Feb 08, 2022

I love reading this article, I see some similarity with Scaled Agile Framework. I was reading "thinking in systems" the other day and I realized everything around us works in systems except from us and wonder why is that? There's a lot of change to be made and I'm glad you're leading that charge. Ayo Lawrence

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