“We must go from boxes to arrows. Tomorrow belongs to those who connect.” — Peter Morville, Intertwingled: Information Changes Everything
When I started working as a designer, I was very interested with the idea of building something from scratch, how to make the experience enjoyable for my users, how to make a first impression and how to get creative and solve problems in a smart way.
But quickly, I realized it’s not that simple, it’s not about a client come to your business, sign a contract and when the project starts, I go on confidently, doing the competitive analysis, user research, create the personas, sketches the interface and blah blah blah.
I realized later that I can’t think of a product whether an application or a website as a single entity. I can’t work in isolation of other teams like marketing, sales, development, and others. I can’t work without taking into my consideration the whole system, the products that are used in conjunction with my product, how my product will affect the industry, how to make it compatible with other systems, how to fit it into my users’ life and more.
I recognized it was a very complex challenge and unless I change my way of thinking about products and treat them as systems, I will never be able to solve these complexities.
Challenges Preventing Us From Effective Problem Solving
As we have discussed, today’s problems are very complex and intertwined than they were earlier. You start solving a problem then you figure out that you are solving the wrong one or after solving the problem, you find out that another part of the system has failed.
Take Airbnb as an example, they are solving the problem of traveling and helps people to rent their homes. They are dealing with a lot of parts (People traveling, people renting their places, employees, physical places, government laws and more) and the deal with a lot of connections between these part (Communication between the traveler and renter, complains received by support, and more). It’s a huge system with many parts and connections.
Moreover, solving more problems and disrupting markets leads to more problems. Like Uber for example when it disrupts the transportation industry during 2011 in NYC, more problems aroused during their journey.
Thinking about How they could make their clients feel more secure? How to guarantee the quality of the rating system? How to manage the drivers complains? How to prevent the theft in their cars?
All of these problems and challenges have aroused when previous challenges are solved. As John Gall illustrated in this example:
“ After setting up a garbage-collection system, we find ourselves faced with a new universe of problems. These include questions of collective bargaining with the garbage collectors’ union, rates and hours, collection on very cold or rainy days, purchase and maintenance of garbage trucks, millage and bond issues, voter apathy, regulations regarding the separation of garbage from trash…if the collectors bargain for more restrictive definitions of garbage, refusing to pick up twigs, trash, old lamps, and even leaving behind properly wrapped garbage if it is not placed within a regulation can, so that taxpayers resort to clandestine dumping along the highway, this exemplifies the Principle of Le Chatelier: the system tends to oppose its own proper function.”
Solving problems and improving systems will always lead to new problems and complexities.
System Thinking Against Traditional Thinking
We were taught in the past that everything happens for a reason and that there is a right answer for everything and when something happens, we quickly think of a cause for this.
We were encouraged to think in a linear way (Cause and Effect Thinking) like in these examples:
• I didn’t wake up (Effect) because the alarm wasn’t set (Cause).
• The car stopped (Effect) because it ran out of gasoline (Cause).
This is simple examples of linear thinking and that is the way people think and interpret events that happen. This way of thinking is suitable for simple problems and on certain circumstances.
Applying this type of thinking to complex problems will not work at all and will lead to unsuccessful solutions. Take a look at this couple of examples:
• Our users are quitting our site after 10 seconds only (Effect). They didn’t attract by our design (Cause).
• Our application has bad reviews on the App Store (Effect). There must be a problem with the UX (Cause).
Users may be quitting your site for many different reasons. The problem could be the loading speed, responsiveness on mobile or they may be entered your site by wrong, In case you use wrong keywords or bad SEO.
Your application has bad reviews. There are many reasons for that and mostly they are a mix of problems.
With this level of complexity, connections, and relationships, it’s impossible to survive and compete with this kind of thinking, we need to think beyond, to shift our thinking to patterns, trends, and interconnections.
We need to think about long-term consequences, not for a quick solution or a tweak to fix something quickly. We need to think of the whole, not the single pieces.
Enter The World Of System Thinking
Think about Amazon Kindle as a system, it was built to transform the reading experience from papers to e-papers. As Don Norman said in his article “ Amazon’s Kindle is my latest example of superb systems thinking.”
Amazon Kindle ecosystem is composed of Kindle store where Amazon offers e-books in Amazon’s proprietary e-book formats so you don’t need to access a computer for getting books on your Kindle. Plus building Kindle apps on other devices where you can read books on your computer.
Also, they offer Kindle direct publishing for publishers and authors where they can publish their books to be downloaded by users.
For developers, they offer Kindle development kit, where developers are able to build active content for Kindle devices.
Amazon thought about the entire system, where authors can upload their books, get revenues, users can discover it, download and read on their Kindle and other devices.
Let’s first define what is a system? A system is a regularly interacting or interdependent group of units forming an integrated whole.
The term “systems thinking” was coined by Barry Richmond in 1987. According to Richmond, “Systems thinking is the art and science of making reliable inferences about behavior by developing an increasingly deep understanding of underlying structure.”
“So, what is a system? A system is a set of things — people, cells, molecules, or whatever — interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time.” — Donella H. Meadows, Thinking in Systems: A Primer
System thinking is about thinking in a new way with a holistic approach to problems, it’s about looking at patterns, relations, connections and trends between the parts of the system rather than thinking about each part in separation.
The System Parts
“A system must consist of three kinds of things: elements, interconnections, and a function or purpose.” Donella H. Meadows, Thinking in Systems: A Primer
Systems are made up of three parts:
1- Elements: The parts or actors of the system.
2- Interconnections: The connections & relationships between the system elements.
3- Purpose or function: The goal of the system or what it is supposed to achieve?
You can find systems everywhere. Your company is a system, your favorite football team is a system, your college is a system and even your body is a system.
Big systems have small systems integrated within like the government is a system and it has small systems: The healthcare system, for example, is a system in a big system (Government).
Let’s take some example to project these parts of the system:
Your company is a system. Employees, clients, computers, and office are the elements. Policies, workflow, and communication between employees and management are the interconnections of the system. The purpose of the company is to gain revenues.
Amazon is a system. Buyers, sellers, Amazon staff, technologies used, and stores where inventory is kept are the system’s elements. The terms & conditions, communication between buyers and Amazon support, and delivery workflow are the interconnections. The purpose of the system is to help people find and buy anything online.
Modifying The Parts = Changing The System
What if we change the elements, interconnections and purpose of the system and how it will be impacted by that:
Elements: Changing the system’s elements is the will have the least effect on the system. If Uber changes its drivers — Of course they change regularly — the system will stay and behave as it is.
Interconnections: Change the system’s interconnections will significantly impact the system’s behavior. If Uber empowered the driver to choose the destination rather the customer, the system will behave in a different way.
Purpose: Change the system’s purpose or function will also affect the system a lot. If Uber changed its purpose of transporting people to transporting food, the system will change as a whole.
Looking deeply at the interconnections and the relationships between the system elements will help you the most when trying to change a system’s behavior.
Governments usually change a system’s elements when a crisis happens by replacing a minister. And usually nothing is solved because the problem isn’t here, the problem lies in the interconnections.
How To Be A System Thinker
System thinking is a way of thinking. You need to train and try a lot to master this kind of thinking.
Shifting your thinking from traditional and linear thinking to system thinking is challenging but it can be achieved by forcing yourself to think systematically and exert more effort in solving problems until it becomes a thinking habit.
Here are some tips that will help you shift your thinking to system thinking:
1- Investigate the system: Stop quick fixing approach, stop jumping to solutions instead. Take your time to analyze the system, it’s elements, interconnections, and purpose and understands them.
2- Ignore symptoms and focus of the real problem: Symptoms are easier to solve but they will appear again and again. Stop solving them and search for the real problem using the 5 Whys technique.
3- Think holistically. Don’t separate the system’s parts and try to solve each problem in isolation but rather find connections and think about it as a whole.
4- Focus on patterns rather than single events. Focus your thinking on patterns recurring over time and try to explain how these behaviors arise rather than thinking of single events only.
5- Change your perspective. Changing your perspective to see areas that are not visible to you, listen to other coworkers carefully and understand their perspective.
Life is complex and it gets more complex over time, bigger challenges arise and everything become connected together.
Changing your way of thinking and perspectives is the first step to think in a holistic way and see the big picture.
I provided you with some books that can take you a step forward if you are interested with system thinking:
Do you have other tips that you think it will be valuable to share in this article? Don’t be hesitated to share with me to include in this article.