Everything and every time we think, we are projecting our own view on reality. [1] Revolutionary Systems Thinker and professor at Cornell University Derek Cabrera remarked,

“When we understand the world as being the result of systems of relationships, we better approximate reality.”

I recently came across Derek’s book Systems Thinking Made Simple: New Hope for Solving Wicked Problems and I was hooked! I was immediately converted to the field of Systems Thinking. In fact, I plan on using Systems Thinking as my new algorithm for everything I do.

j1After speaking with Derek, I decided to write an article that was similar to a book review, yet also a how-to. This article will focus on Derek’s new version of Systems Thinking (v2.0), how to use it, and some tools to use with it. So, let’s take a look at what Systems Thinking v2.0 is.

The Best Way to Solve Wicked Problems

Screen Shot 2020-10-14 at 2.01.38 PMIf you had to think of the problem that underlies all other problems, what would you say it is? Derek informs us that it is the way we think and until we change the way we think, we will find it extremely difficult to tackle wicked problems. In fact, Albert Einstein would have probably agreed. Einstein once remarked,

“Without changing our patterns of thought, we will not be able to solve the problems created with our current pattern of thought.”

So, what are wicked problems?

“Wicked problems result from a mismatch with how things work and how we think or perceive they work.” – Derek Cabrera

Why Systems Thinking Is the Best Way To Innovate

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Personally, Systems Thinking is my “aha” or epiphany generator. It is the best way to innovate. In fact, there are three ways to innovate.

  1. Invent something new.
  2. Make an existing product better.
  3. Combine two existing things into something new.

Systems Thinking is also perfect for learning something in one domain and transferring it to another. Along with his wife Laura, Derek discusses how Systems Thinking uses what is called a Far Transfer. This is learning something in one domain and transferring it to another in order to teach yourself 5-20 additional things.

Derek and Laura discovered Systems Thinking v2.0 after developing an equation. Yet, it was his wife Laura who helped him translate this into the real world. Laura is an expert in the field of Translational Research, which helps bring the abstract into reality. They then developed Systems Thinking v2.0 through four simple rules. However, let’s look at a couple of key concepts to understand before we discuss the four rules.

The Foundation of Systems Thinking

Mental Model

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“All mental models are wrong; the practical question is how wrong do they have to be to not be useful.” – George E.P. Box

This is the foundation of Systems Thinking. Derek informs us that a Mental Model is an explanation of someone’s thought process about how something works in the real world. Think back to our discussion on wicked problems. Wicked problems are present when our mental models are complex.

Derek provides the following equation for Mental Models.

Information + Structure = Mental Models

  • Information includes all material, information, or data of any kind that contribute to meaning.
  • Structure includes hidden contextual structure that contributes to meaning.

Complex Adaptive Systems

Screen Shot 2020-10-14 at 2.18.21 PMComplexity theory draws research from science that examines uncertainty and non-linearity. It emphasizes interactions and feedback loops that are continuously changing. This is why Systems Thinking must be a Complex Adaptive System (CAS). This provide us an understanding of a system and the system’s behavior.

The Four Simple Rules of Systems Thinking

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Let’s now discuss the four simple rules of Systems Thinking v2.0. These rules are known as DSRP, which represents four cognitive functions that we must have to form new ideas:

  • Distinctions
  • Systems
  • Relationships
  • Perspectives


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Simply put, every idea starts with a distinct thing or idea. Let’s see how Derek describes Distinctions.

  • They are the key to solving wicked problems.
  • They identify what a thing or even a problem IS and what it IS NOT.
  • They serve as the boundary that define an idea.
  • The things we see and think about derive meaning from other proximate things or ideas.
  • Essentially, words mean what we want them to mean.
  • Key words: compare, contrast, define, differentiate.


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“A change in the way an idea is organized leads to a change in the meaning of the idea.” – Derek Cabrera

Similar to distinctions, every idea or thing is a system containing parts. Let’s take a look at how Derek describes Systems.

  • Any idea or thing can be split into parts (deconstruction).
  • Any idea or thing can be lumped into a whole (construction).
  • A person who can do both (split and lump) is called a “Slumper”.
  • Slumper’s are people who have the ability to both construct or synthesize ideas; additionally, they can deconstruct ideas to further our understanding.
  • Key words: part-whole, chunking, grouping, organizing.

“What makes something a part is that it belongs to a whole. What makes something a whole is that it has a part. Every whole has the potential to also be a part. Your mind needs to do the work to see this. In the real world, whatever you are looking at has parts.” – Derek Cabrera


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Relationships consist of an action and reaction. Here is how Derek defines Relationships.

  • We cannot understand much about a thing or idea without understanding the relationship between or among the ideas or systems.
  • All types of relationships require that we consider two underlying elements: action and reaction.
  • Key words: connect, interconnection, interaction, link, cause, effect, feedback.


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“If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” – Derek Cabrera

Let’s now take a look at the last rule – Perspectives. We typically identify perspectives when we are able to identify the boundaries of a system and determine the relationships in a system. Derek defines Perspectives by the following.

  • Sometimes perspectives are so basic and so unconscious to us, we are unaware of them but they are always aware of us.
  • Perspectives are made up of two related elements: a Point from which we are Viewing and the thing or things that are in View (Point-of-View).
  • Being aware of the perspectives we take and do not take is paramount to deeply understanding ourselves and the world around us.
  • Shift perspectives and we transform distinctions, relationships, and systems we do and do not see.
  • Different perspectives result from changing the Point, the View, or Both.

“Perspectives can be used to make us expand our thinking and include more options (i.e. divergent thinking). It can also be used to restrict our thinking and cause greater focus (i.e. convergent thinking).” – Derek Cabrera

Fill in Gaps Through Systems Thinking


“Systems Thinking requires little more than practice in building cognitive building blocks. It is no different than building with different types of Legos, or the four different nucleotides in DNA.” – Derek Cabrera

Let’s look at how to use some of the tools in Systems Thinking v2.0. The first technique we will look at is called a Cognitive Jig. This is a powerful technique, one in which Derek informs us,

“Will increase our speed of thought.”

Types of Cognitive Jigs


  • Analogy. An analogy is the comparison of two things demonstrating similarities. Derek informs us,

“The genius behind the invention of analogies was that they gave us a mental model of a common way we understand things (i.e. by comparison to a known thing).”

  • Metaphor. A metaphor is used when we need to make a comparison between two things that are not alike, yet have something in common.

New Cognitive Jigs

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  • Perspective Circles (P-Circle). P-Circles change the point (a) or the view (b) which changes the perspective. Another way to look at it is from an idea (b) from the perspective of an idea (a).
  • Part-Parties. They demonstrate a whole made up of parts. The basic idea is: 1) Break an idea or thing into parts; 2) Relate the parts. These can then be extended further by including perspective.
  • Barbells. You can look at Barbells as two ideas or things and the relationship between them. Expanded further, we find what is called an RDS Barbell, where: R = Relate; D = Distinguish; and S = Systematize. Derek calls these “algorithms for innovation.” He uses RDS Barbells in solving wicked problems as complexity is hidden in the interrelationship between ideas.

Tools to Help You Adapt Systems Thinking

Lastly, let’s take a brief look at some of the tools Derek and Laura have created to assist us in understanding and using Systems Thinking v2.0.

MetaMap (now Plectica). This platform was created to help us understand exactly how to map our thinking process using DSRP. You can even use it to map an outline to an essay! Best of all, this platform is free to use, you can try it out here (Note: MetaMap has now become Plectica, which you can check out here.) 

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ThinkBlocks. These are 3D dry erase blocks that anyone of any age can use.

Screen Shot 2020-10-14 at 2.36.59 PMThinkQuiry. This website uses what Derek refers to as “MadLib” style DSRP questions. These can be useful in helping us use the structure of DSRP to discover new ideas. It utilizes the Socratic Method and focuses on the questions more than the answers. Start to discover new ideas on ThinkQuiry.

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If you can’t tell already, I highly recommend purchasing Systems Thinking Made Simple: New Hope for Solving Wicked Problems. Derek provides us a way to literally generate new and amazing ideas. There are an infinite number of thoughts in our mind, and an infinite number of systems we can use to explore our thoughts. Systems Thinking v2.0 provides us a powerful way to explore our thoughts.

Furthermore, Derek places everyone on a Consciousness and Competence Continuum. He describes the continuum as:

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  1. We begin at the unconscious incompetence stage (we don’t know what we don’t know).
  2. If we are lucky, someone wakes us up and causes us to search for something more. We then move into the conscious incompetence stage, where we realize we have something we need to learn.
  3. Once we develop some competence, we then move into the unconscious competence stage. Here we practice a skill without being fully aware of the skill. There is some cognition, just not metacognition (thinking about thinking or cognition about cognition).
  4. When we finally move into the conscious-competence stage, we become aware of what we are doing so that we can adapt to where we need to be.

Successfully progressing along the continuum means we have an increase in our metacognitive awareness, which is extremely important as everything we experience is an ever-changing mental model.

Derek’s vision for Systems Thinking v2.0 is to develop 7 Billion Systems Thinkers! Let me end this article with three questions. These are the same questions Derek used to develop his vision and you can use it to develop yours.

  • Question #1: What pisses you off the most?
  • Question #2: What do you see today?
  • Question #3: What should you see tomorrow?

Read the original article here

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[1] ^ Derek Cabrera: Systems Thinking Made Simple