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  • Writer's pictureFunmilola Asa

Practical System Thinking Principles - Part II

System thinking principles are foundational truths that are applicable for analyzing complex systems across a wide range of applications. Building on the first 3 principles shared in the previous post, let's explore 2 more principles that help understand and design life systems....

Complex systems are all around us and interact with us daily, from mechanical to cyber-physical and all the way to socio-technical systems including businesses, governance and other types of interconnected elements and relationships. System Thinking allows us to manage complex systems by breaking them into manageable sizes while keeping sight of the whole; focusing on the behaviors that define such a system driven by the interactions within the system, and between the system and its environment. While complex systems are often challenging to analyze, some underlying principles anchored to a holistic view of systems cut across various types of systems and help with understanding existing systems, designing new ones, or fixing broken systems.

In this second part of the four-part series to discuss key system principles in very practical terms, I discuss two key principles that help with analyzing complex systems of all types. Building on the discussions in Part 1 where I examine the system as a synergy of subsystems, and the criticality of stakeholder needs assessment as a basis of a good system architecture, as well as solution neutrality in defining the core needs that the system addresses; I proceed to discuss the importance of preserving the identity of the system when breaking down such a system and the true test of the effectiveness of interfaces or ‘hand shakes’ within a system and with its environment.

So, here goes Principles 4 and 5.....

Principle 4: Principle of Right Level of System Decomposition & Abstraction – To aid the analysis of a complex system, the system should be broken down to manageable / comprehensible layers in a way that preserves critical information regarding what drives the behaviors of the system such as key interactions within the system and across the system boundaries, while summarizing details of the system that are not essential for understanding the system under the specific viewing lens. Perfecting this art is sort of like tuning a microscope until the appropriate viewing is achieved.

According to Albert Einstein “Everything must be made as simple as possible, But no simpler”. A first step in analyzing any complex system is to identify the sublayers that make up the system and to understand how the system works. This requires a combination of breaking down (decomposing) the system into its components while summarizing (abstracting) parts of the system that do not impact the analysis in view. However, the abstraction and decomposition of the system must not diminish the integrity of the system and interface interactions. An example is the human system which is a combination of various biological systems interacting within the whole. Understanding how the systems function and interact with one another help with describing key functions of the human from basic functions such as walking that requires a coordination between the eye, brain, legs, etc.; to complex functions such as decision making. Breaking down all the parts within the human body creates a complexity that is not required for the high-level summary of how the human body works. So, for the purpose of overall description, a simplification of the systems is used to allow the focus to remain on the key interactions that drive the behaviors of the system.

....the abstraction (summarizing) and decomposition (breaking down) of the system must not diminish the integrity of the system and interface interactions....

Akin to zooming in and out of a google map, the way in which the system is viewed should enable the right level of details to help characterize the part of the system being viewed without losing the essence of the overall context. For instance, in evaluating the complex interactions within a family system, which includes the couple and children or even in some cases external parties, there may be need to summarize certain aspects of the system while doing a deep dive into other parts of the system without risking the information that makes that family system unique. So, we could zoom into the relationships between the spouses and identify key issues with communication and other interactions within their relationship while summarizing the children as a block of stakeholders in the system that are impacted by the output of the interactions within the ‘spouses’ subsystem.

The difference in this sort of subset analysis versus just looking at each subset independently is the conscious focus on the input and output linkages to other parts of the system while still carrying out a detailed analysis of the specific subsystem. As broken links are encountered, a further deep dive may be required to analyze the causes of these disconnections. In the successive breakdown of layers of the system, the anchor to the overall system is maintained by keeping the inputs and output links to other parts of the system in focus and to ensure that each successive breakdown still supports the ability to explain the interactions with the other components of the system and the external environment where applicable. This is applicable to the analysis of the layers of a governance system composed of the various subsystems including the citizens, executives, judiciary, legislatives, and even external players (e.g., lenders / investors); or to a business which could be broken down by the respective functions or stakeholder groups. The consistent theme that facilitates the identification of the issues in the overall system or define opportunities for optimization is the ability to preserve the true behaviors of the system as characterized by the connections. Hence the focus is more on the interactions that solely on the components, because it is not uncommon to find individuals parts /subsystems working well and seemingly doing what they are designed to do whereas the overall system remains suboptimal due to challenges with interactions and feedback loops.

Having identified the way to analyze a complex system using a fine balance of breaking down and summarizing parts of the system at the same time, it is then important to highlight the need for clear boundary and interface definition within a system to facilitate value delivery across the various internal and external boundaries of the system. In essence, it’s the answer to the question “how can I facilitate the transfer of value within my family, business, governance, and other systems to ensure that the true needs of stakeholders can be met by the system?”. Principle 5 addresses this......

Principle 5: Principle of System Interface Value Delivery – A system boundary is the ‘picture frame’ around the system, and as such, the true test of a system boundary’s appropriateness is the exchange of value that occur at the boundary between the system and every connection to the system. When defining the external system boundary & internal boundaries for subsystems within a system, it is important that the boundaries and connections allow for value consistent with the overall system functioning to be passed across each boundary.

Peter F. Druker is credited with the quote: “The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said” while George Bernard Shaw also lends his voice to the narrative with the quote: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place”. Both quotes highlight the importance of the principle of System Interface Delivery because the challenge with complex systems that are suboptimal may not be with the system parts not functioning appropriately but may very well be a case of miscommunication that alters the transfer of value across the system or subsystem boundaries because of poorly designed interfaces. An example that comes to mind quickly is of poorly resourced customer-facing roles in businesses whose key revenues come from direct customer sales. Given that these customer facing roles are often the face of the company to these critical stakeholders of the system, the assessment of the organization, with direct implications for sales, can be dented due to the poorly designed ‘customer interface’. Other examples of interface issues can include the information transfer system/process between two critical subsystems of a business such as between Sales and Marketing or between Marketing and Operations amongst others; or the structure through which the feedback from distressed children is transmitted to their parents such that the signals are missed until the issues have escalated somewhat beyond control.

‘True communication’ occurs at a system boundary when the receiving party clearly gets what is intended by the transmitting party. The most critical interface for any product or service is with the user of the system as this defines if the product/service meets the original need of the intended user as discussed in Principle 2 in Part 1 of this series. Defining the boundary of a system and the value exchange that occurs there is almost as important as the design of the core system functionality. A ‘superb’ system that cannot deliver the function that it has been designed for because the connection to the end-user or other enabling system was poorly defined, delivers no value at its interface. If in doubt, think about the last time that you bought a state-of-the-art gadget that you could not use because it did not work with your wall socket or had compatibility issues with other equipment required for the full user experience.

...A ‘superb’ system that cannot deliver the function that it has been designed for because the connection to the end-user or other enabling system was poorly defined, delivers no value at its interface....

If there is no value crossing the boundary at an interface connection or the intended value is not delivered, then the necessity of the connection and or boundary must be questioned. For instance, in corporate environments, the organizational design often has layers of middle managers and supervisors as the interface between the organization’s strategies as set by the Executive leaders and the workforce whose day-to-day deliverables and/or well-being are impacted by these strategies or corporate policies. Poorly designed interfaces in these instances are exemplified in the poor operationalization of the polices or a dilution in the upward feedback from the workforce by the middle managers which results in poor execution of well-intended policies which ultimately results in sub-optimal outcomes as defined by critical business indices or lack of workforce commitment in such organizations. From a personal development viewpoint, the ‘handshakes’ between the trainings that one undertakes and the opportunities to apply the knowledge to advance one’s career can be poorly designed resulting in a mismatch in which the attained training does not add value to the individual either from a lack of opportunity to implement the ideas or from a very delayed application in which the core learnings have already been lost before the opportunity to apply them arise.

An electronic device that is designed with a US power socket and power rating but intended for international markets fails to deliver value at the interface. To ensure value delivery for the intended market, the design may need to be expanded to accommodate a range of voltage and current settings and, in some cases, equipped with power cords with interchangeable plugs. If however, the product was purely designed for the US market strictly then the added flexibility is not required. Hence the purpose of the system, the range of stakeholders and the environment in which the system interacts, are critical inputs into interface design. A system that is expected to be valuable over a range of outcomes like businesses in Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) environments must therefore have robust interface designs to ensure consistent value delivery over the spectrum of scenarios.

.... A system that is expected to be valuable over a range of outcomes like businesses in VUCA environments must have robust interface designs to ensure consistent value delivery over the spectrum of scenarios....

So, bringing it all together...

The skills to analyze complex systems are increasingly in demand given the magnitude of complexities around us. In this edition, I drew on practical examples to discuss 2 critical principles applicable to complex systems to enable analysis of the system and guarantee the delivery of the intended value of the system to key stakeholder.

In my next blog post I will discuss another 2 practical system thinking principles. In the meantime, to practicalize this blog post, a few questions must be answered regarding the complex systems around you: Do you know the key components of your _________ (technical, personal development, relationship, and business) systems? Do you understand how they work and the interactions that enable the behaviors and outcomes of those systems? Are you constantly evaluating the interfaces within your system and with your key stakeholders to ensure that the intended value is being received? How robust are your interfaces to cater for the range of intended stakeholders of the system or environments in which the system operates? An answer in the affirmative is a critical boost to ensuring that your systems works optimally.

Wishing you a transformational journey ahead.

Funmilola (Funmi)

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