The 6 Sacred Cows of Systems Thinking
Derek Cabrera, PhD
Derek Cabrera (PhD, Cornell) is an internationally known systems scientist and serves on the faculty of Cornell University where he teaches systems thinking, systems leadership, and systems mapping and is Program Director for the Graduate Certification Program in Systems Thinking, Modeling, and Leadership (STML). He is a senior scientist at Cabrera Research Lab. He’s authored 8 books including, Systems Thinking Made Simple and Flock Not Clock.
More posts by Derek Cabrera, PhD
This isn't a blog post, but more of a blog-collection. 6 common things that systems thinkers like to say that are bupkis. We call them sacred cows of systems thinking because it is almost blasphemous to disagree with them, even though most have a much bigger bark than bite. Click on the links below (in the right column) to red the blogs on each sacred cow.
Table: 6 Sacred Cows of Systems Thinking
|Sacred Cow||True or False?||Replacement CONCEPT (and LINK TO BLOG)|
|1. The whole is more than the
sum of the parts (a.k.a.,
|False||The whole is always precisely
equal to its parts.
|2. All systems have a purpose.||False||The "purpose" of a system is
what it does.
3. Systems thinking is ____
|4. Systems thinking is holistic
(or alternatively, systems
thinking is anti-reductionism)
|5. Everything is connected.||False||Everything is connected, or
6. There is no system out
In one sense, I agree with those who lament that semantic debates lack utility. Purely semantic debates, based entirely on opinion, are not terribly useful. Yet, a good portion of these distinctions (above) are actually not purely semantic—in most cases they are empirical. With the possible exception of #2 (which leans toward the philosophical), all 6 of the "scared cows" I mention above are empirically testable, not a matter of opinion. In all cases, the distinction being made between the "scared cow" and the replacement provides increased depths of understanding about systems.
One of the things that all scientists (systems scientists included) must get better at is making scientific concepts accessible to the public (because the public funds our science) without dumbing them down to the point of losing fidelity with the scientific concept. All of the sacred cows I mention are guilty of over-simplifying or being somewhat loose with language. Thus, when these tropes get repeated and reinforced, they provide the public with a false understanding. When the public commits to these tropes so thoroughly that they become "sacred cows" it becomes even worse.