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What is systems thinking?

Systems thinking is a way of looking at the world. Systems thinkers look at something, identify the key factors that shape it, analyse how those factors interact with one another, and when things go wrong find the root cause of the problems.

The pandemic is the most obvious example. Governments are regularly criticised for not having joined-up policies but COVID-19 forced policy-makers to become systems thinkers. They had to look at the interactions between a large number of factors behind virus transmission including travel, socialisation, and economic disruption. Any changes to these factors had knock-on consequences for the others making this an extremely complex systems challenge.

Systems thinking and the environment

The term ‘systems thinking’ was originally coined in 1987 by Barry Richmond and is widely used in projects aiming to tackle global challenges like those taken on by the World Economic Forum.

Perhaps the most common use of systems thinking is in the concept of ‘ecosystems’. It is now widely understood that natural environments are complex things and that you need to look at the ecosystem as a whole if you are to avoid well intentioned but bad policies with unforeseen consequences.

Systems thinking and you

Systems thinking sounds complex but can be easily applied to everyday life.

The Iceberg Model is based on the work of Edward Hall in the 1970s when we was trying to explain how culture was transmitted. His theory was that culture can only be observed at a superficial level – like an iceberg only 10% of it can be seen with the naked eyes. The rest is beneath the surface and the only way of fully understanding a culture was to participate in it.

That insight has been developed by systems thinkers who believe that there are four levels to understanding challenges. This diagram from Ecochallenge applies the iceberg model to a very basic personal challenge – why am I getting more colds?

How systems thinking is different from traditional thinking

Systems thinking is both more sophisticated and more vague than traditional thinking. Systems thinkers think in terms of watching patterns over time, find mental models that at least partially explain those patterns, and keep an eye open for new models.

Barry Richmond identifies 7 types of thinking essential for systems thinkers and it boils down to ensuring that you can see the wood for the trees.

How to use systems thinking in digital content

Systems thinking is particularly useful in digital content planning and production. That’s because there’s lots of data to analyse, complex interactions between websites, search engines, and social media, and huge prizes for those who get it right:

  • Patterns/Trends: Digital content systems thinkers spend inordinate amounts of time studying the user data and looking for patterns of behaviour
  • Underlying structures: Systems thinkers constantly run experiments in formats, style, tone, framing, length to probe deeper into what is driving behaviour. Crucially, they also experiment by varying effort across digital channels to see where the maximum impact can be had
  • Mental models: Systems thinkers carry in their minds a set of working hypotheses about who their audiences are and what they really need. Those hypotheses are under constant review.