Top 10 Things Systems Thinkers Do
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
I can sum up what people want to know about systems thinking in two questions. First, they want to know what systems thinking is, which several previous blogs here, here, and here have addressed. Second, they want to know how they can do it or get better at it. For that, I've put together a partially scientific and partially anecdotal list of the top things I see systems thinkers do.[^n]
10 Make it routine Make systems thinking part of your everyday (or weekly) practice. Like brushing your teeth, jogging, or exercise. Create reminders like post-it notes or dry erase on a window to remind yourself to practice the art and science of systems thinking (e.g., DSRP). Be vigilant. Systems thinking really isn't much more than being hypervigilant, aware and conscious. Like exercise or getting over alcoholism, it works if you work it. But it works in tiny incremental steps, not broad, inspired moments. Pay attention. Be awake. Stay frosty.
9 Embrace your inner mental models Build an awareness that everything you experience is a mental model that approximates (either poorly or well) the real world. Learn to distinguish thinkings and feelings. The ability to distinguish among cognition (thinking), emotion (feelings), and conation (motivations) and the awareness of how these different human capacities influence our mental models and behavior is important.
8 See structure AND information Mental models are made up of information. But the thing that gives that information meaning is the underlying structure. Don't be fooled by the superficial details and data. Pay attention to the hidden structure of things. There are four universal patterns that underlie systems thinking and provide insights into how things are structured. Practice DSRP. Practice each one intentionally while you're in the shower, commuting, or people watching, and then practice mixing and matching them to create increasingly complex structures. Items 7, 6, 5, 4, and 3 will get you started...
7 Debate the distinctions (D) Develop an awareness of the distinctions you make and the emotions and motivations that may have influenced you to make them. Talk them out inside your head or with friends. Challenge your boundaries and assumptions about how things are; especially the things that "you've always thought of that way." More on distinction making here.
6 Shake up systems (S) There are many ways to organize ideas and things (and your current way is just one of them). Take any set of marbles, buttons, or trinkets and you'll see that you can organize them into many different part-whole groupings from different perspectives (e.g., color, shape, size, hardness, material, etc). Be more aware of how many things and ideas come pre-organized for you and may contain hidden biases. More on part-whole systems here.
5 Recognize the relationships (R) If it's true that the devil is in the details, then it's also true that the complexities are inside the relationships. When we draw relationships, we often think of them as a line between two things. But zoom into this line and uncover a world of complexity and richness. Think of every relationship as a gift to be unpacked and discover what's inside. More on relationships here.
4 Pay attention to perspectives (P) Develop awareness that everything you and others think is being influenced by one or more perspectives. There's nothing you or anyone can think that doesn't have a perspective that frames it that way. Sometimes we don't even see the subtle perspectives that are framing things. When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change. More on perspective taking here and here.
3 Playfully Mix and Match DSRP isn't something that's static and linear. It's dynamic. Play with it by mixing and matching: Break a perspective into part-whole; make a relationship into a distinction and then break it down into parts; look at the whole from the perspective of one or all of the parts. Don't be afraid that you're not doing it right, just allow your mind to play with ideas and discover new pathways.
2 Be less binary When you practice DSRP, you'll start to become less binary or bivalent (two states of reality) and more multivalent (multiple states of reality). You'll see more gray and less black and white. You'll see more of how the world really is: complex. The logic that underlies systems thinking/DSRP is multivalent rather than bivalent. This is important because many of the systems that we have designed that are failing us are binary (e.g., binary code that underlies computing limitations, our judicial system that thinks in simple terms of guilt/innocence, our two-party political system; the us vs. them mentality that undergirds nearly every conversation on social media, race relations, and foreign policy). Multivalent thinking will help us to build better, more just, more fair, more effective systems.
[^n]: The anecdotal aspects of the list (items 10 and 1 ) come from over a decade of training tens of thousands of people (including teachers, students, and parents, for profit and nonprofit executives and teams, university researchers, government policymakers, and undergraduate and graduate students). The scientific aspects of this list (items 2-9) come from the significant literature in the field of systems thinking which I haven't included here because this blog was written for a non-academic and newcomer audience.
1 Wash the glass like a baby Buddha Imagine that you are given a job to wash some dishes. You dive into a routinized schema you've performed hundreds if not thousands of times; you daydream, or you perhaps begin to think about other, more important, things. Catch yourself in that moment. What if you were asked to wash the baby Buddha. Imagine how focused on the task you would be. Imagine the craftsmanship and care you would take. Systems thinking happens in every moment of every day, not merely when things go wrong or problems need to be solved. Indeed, many problems will never manifest if you wash the glass like a baby Buddha.