Systemic thinking

People are generally used to think in simple linear cause-effect relationships. Therefore, in situations characterized by dynamic complexity, they often make unfavorable decisions due to a deficient understanding of the system. Since many questions of personal, economic and social life are embedded in complex systems, better decisions by actors in such areas would be desirable.

Systemic thinking enables the understanding of complex systems and comprises four dimensions:

Systemic thinking comprises four central dimensions:

  1. Networked thinking: thinking in feedback loops
  2. Dynamic thinking: thinking in time sequences
  3. Thinking in models
  4. Acting in accordance with the system. (Ossimitz 2000, 52)

For Ossimitz, networked thinking includes the ability to recognise indirect effects as well as direct effects and, above all, to identify feedback loops. Furthermore, networked thinking includes the ability to build up and understand networks of cause-effect relationships, which requires a suitable form of representation. Ossimitz recommends the impact diagram for this purpose:

For Ossimitz, dynamic thinking involves a whole bundle of skills that relate to the behaviour of the states of a system over time. As sub-dimensions he cites:

  1. Recognizing and considering the inherent dynamics of systems.
  2. The ability to identify future development opportunities.
  3. Recognizing the importance of long-term effects.
  4. Recognising and assessing characteristic systemic time patterns (delays, periodic oscillations, different types of growth types - linear, exponential, logistic, etc.) [1].
  5. An understanding of the simultaneous execution of several operations in a complex system.
  6. The ability to adequately represent time shapes or to transform them into spatial shapes. Such time shapes are periodic fluctuations or time delays. (Ossimitz 2000, 55)

By thinking in models, Ossimitz initially understands an awareness of the character of models: They depict certain parts of reality in a simplified way, whereby the same facts can be captured with different models. Different models are not 'right' or 'wrong' per se, but represent different simplifications that operate with different premises. From this knowledge also follows the realization that insights gained in the model cannot be transferred to reality without further ado. Rather, the complexity reducing premises must be taken into account in this transfer. For Ossimitz, thinking in models also includes the ability to create models oneself, for example in the form of impact diagrams or system dynamics models.

System-oriented action expresses the ability to make consciously-reflected decisions to control a system or to solve a complex challenge (cf. Ossimitz 2000, 52 ff.).

These remarks may provide a first overview of systemic thinking. For a well-founded presentation including theoretical background, possibilities for promoting systemic thinking and concrete learning environments, see Arndt (2016), which is also available as a free e-book. The corresponding models and tutorials can be found here.