Systems Thinking: Understanding Consequences of Thought

Systems Thinking: Understanding Consequences of Thought

We have all heard of Critical Thinking. While thinking critically, we analyze the current situation, whether it is a problem to be solved, a riddle to be unraveled, or a decision to be made or a project to be broken into smaller pieces – we project managers call that decomposition and thinkers call it reduction – to understand what we need to understand. We assume by understanding the parts, we’ll understand the whole. Many times, the assumption is correct, yet we can still miss important aspects of the situation.

System thinking approaches the situation differently. System thinking takes a holistic approach to understanding the interactions between the components, as well as, the interaction of this “system”  with other systems within its universe (eco-system). The Water’s Foundation describes systems thinking as not one thing but a set of habits or practices within a framework based on the belief the component parts of a system can best be understood in the context of relationships with each other and with other systems. Systems thinking is cyclical rather than linear in nature. (Water’s Foundation systems thinking definitions)

By combining systems thinking and the more traditional critical thinking, we begin to understand the reduced components within their ecosystem and understand how they impact each other and the world around them. In so doing, we don’t accidentally create bigger problems or unwanted results while solving the root cause. Or we understand how our decisions impact others in a more complete fashion.

We can define a systems as
• Composed of parts,
• Can be a part of a larger system,
• All parts are related (directly or indirectly),
• Has boundaries (encapsulated),
• Can overlap other systems (shared parts),
• Receives inputs and provides outputs to a larger environment,
• Contains processes transforming inputs into outputs, and
• Is autonomous in fulfilling its purpose.
Systems Theory

Margaret Rouse in her Systems Thinking article defines it this way:

Systems thinking is a holistic approach to analysis that focuses on the way that a system’s constituent parts interrelate and how systems work over time and within the context of larger systems. The systems thinking approach contrasts with traditional analysis, which studies systems by breaking them down into their separate elements.

According to systems thinking, system behavior results from the effects of reinforcing and balancing processes. A reinforcing process leads to the increase of some system component. If reinforcement is unchecked by a balancing process, it eventually leads to collapse. A balancing process is one that tends to maintain equilibrium in a particular system.

Systems Thinking - 9 Thinking Modalities - ThinkingRouse seems to indicate systems require a checks-and-balance within it. It is like a balloon filled with water. Push the balloon in one area and it bulges in another area. The water is kept in check by the “boundary” of the balloon membrane flexing to compensate for the water displaced from the area being squeezed. Once the pressure is released, the membrane pushes the water back to its original place (albeit, in some cases, not exactly as it was before due to stretching or other misinformation – a topic for another article). We must understand the bulging of the balloon from a systems perspective and not just analyze the bulge as if it were the problem area. Each aspect of the system is related and has bearing on the other system members.

A Systems Thinking Example

Putting this into the context of project management, we see tasks along the critical path slipping moving our project’s end date beyond acceptable time frames. Using critical thinking methods, we analyze the situation and determine several of our team members are waiting for materials from the vendor. We call the vendor to understand their situation better and learn they are shipping the materials as quickly as possible. We conclude we must turn our project status to red because of the slipping schedule and simply project a new end date.

Unfortunately, our project is part of a larger program and extending our date impacts other projects and jeopardizes the overall program. We learn quickly from the angry tone of the program manager’s voice our project is part of a system and changes to one part of the system impacts other areas (the balloon effect mentioned above). Certainly, we can explain the vendor bottleneck, but that won’t help the other areas affected by our “bulge”. We need to remedy the vendor situation. Continuing with the status quo is not acceptable.

While working with the vendor, we understand they are also part of a system. We learn our order is just part of their overall workload and a much larger customer decided to put demands on the vendor for more product sooner than the vendor expected. At this point, they are running over-capacity and are shipping to us as quickly as possible to maintain our business, but are hampered by the demanding, larger customer. We realize pushing the vendor or penalizing the vendor will only exacerbate the issue, to our detriment.

To overcome the vendor delay, we turn to our back-up vendor which produces a similar product, which is not exactly the same as the first vendor’s product meaning the substitution of product will impact our schedule. Here are some questions to be answered using a systems thinking approach:
• Will the schedule delay due to swapping products be greater or less than enduring the current vendor’s delivery lags?
• What is the impact to our budget?
• If the costs are higher, who will absorb the cost differential?
• Will we be able to recover that differential from our current vendor?
• Is absorbing costs incurred by customer due to vendor non-performance in the contract?
• Will the delay in our schedule from the product swap be acceptable to the other impacted projects within our own organization?
• Is there a cascading delay effect throughout all the other projects or will it only impact a few, such that we can absorb the delay as an organization overall?
• By substituting the new product into our project, how will it impact other projects, aside from the schedule delay and budget increase? Are other projects dependent upon the first vendor’s product characteristics in a way the new product swap will not support?
• And so on….

Had we stayed with the tried-and-true method of critical thinking, we would have solved the problem by either letting the schedule slip occur, forcing the vendor to deliver the material more quickly or by using a second vendor. Any one of those solutions could easily have created larger problems if we did not look  at the initial problem within the context of the system.


Not an “Either/Or” Mentality

Systems Thinking - 9 Thinking Modalities - ThinkingAs can be seen, we do not simply swap one thinking modality for another. Rather, we combine thinking modalities providing a better understanding of the situation overall. It is not an “either/or” solution. We use multiple thinking modalities to compliment and supplement each other.


Systems thinking gives us an approach to understanding the interaction between components of a system. Everything lives within a system. We call it the “eco-system.” Our project is an eco-system. Our project exists within a larger eco-system (program). Our program is part of an even larger eco-system. And so on. We need to understand the interaction between components within a system and additionally, the interaction of this system with other systems. Understanding the interactions, we can better understand how a change to one will influence another. These influences may create larger problems than the original one being solved. In the case of a decisions, a positive decision may cause negative consequences unforeseen without better understanding the overall system.

When thinking “critically,” be aware of factors surrounding the solution and its effects.

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