What is a system? What is 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.
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Einstein famously said, "if you can’t explain something simply you don’t understand it." Of course, there's lot's of nuance in understanding systems thinking but sometimes one needs to hear a simple definition, like you might find in a dictionary. So here are two simple definitions, one for systems thinking and one for system.
Q: What is a system?
A: Two or more related parts.
Q: What is systems thinking?
Or, in a sentence:
The recursive distinguishing of things and their interrelationships and part-whole organization from various perspectives.
Note: The book Systems Thinking Made Simple, goes a bit further in explaining what systems thinking is and how to do it more successfully to solve any problem or understand things better or to model systems using modelling software or visual diagrams. Lao Tsu, in the Tao te ching wrote, "The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao" which means that words can never fully capture the complexities of the universe. At one level systems thinking, which occurs in the minds of different people, cannot be fully captured because it is infinitely adaptive and ever changing. Systems thinking is an emergent phenomenon, not something that can truly be captured in its complexity. What can be captured and practiced are the simple rules (D, S, R,and P) that bring about the emergence of systems thinking. So DSRP is technically not the same as systems thinking, but it does represent the simple rules that cause it to occur. In other words, DSRP is about as close as we'll get to teaching, learning, or knowing what systems thinking is. ↩︎