System Thinking 101: A Primer for Generalistsby@thegeneralist
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System Thinking 101: A Primer for Generalists

by Elhadj_CApril 30th, 2023
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Systems thinking is a way of looking at the big picture and seeing how everything is connected. It’s a framework, a methodology, and a worldview all at once, depending on how acquainted with it we become. We need to get familiar with the different concepts and tools before being comfortable putting them into practice.
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Are you struggling to solve complex problems? Do you feel like you're stuck in a never-ending cycle of solutions that just create more problems? If so, you may be in need of systems thinking! In this article, we'll explore how systems thinking can help you become a better generalist and improve your critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication skills. Ready to learn more? Let's dive in!

Systems Thinking 101: Key Concepts and Principles

Systems thinking is a way of looking at the big picture and seeing how everything is connected. It’s a framework, a methodology, and a worldview all at once, depending on how acquainted with it we become.

Since we’re just getting started, it’s best to look at it as a way to avoid getting lost in the details and missing the forest for the trees.

I want to come out and say it’s not a quick cool hack that can be applied without thinking. We need to get familiar with the different concepts and tools before being somewhat comfortable putting them into practice, and that’s what the next sections are for!

What’s a System?

A system is anything that has parts, connections, and a goal. The parts can be anything you can think of: people, plants, machines, ideas…etc. The connections are how the parts affect each other: physically, mentally, socially…etc. The goal is the ultimate reason the system is working towards: it could be love, money, happiness, or world domination.


The tricky thing about systems is what’s known as ‘emergence’. When the parts interact, they create something new: a whole that has its own properties and behaviors. You can't understand or predict these by looking at the parts alone. You have to look at the whole system. If you’ve ever heard of the expression ‘more than the sum of its parts’, you know where it comes from now.

Examples of systems:

A family: people who love and support each other (parts), communicate and cooperate (connections), and form a social unit (goal).

A car: mechanical parts that move and work together (parts), transfer energy and force (connections) and transport people and goods (goal).

A forest: living organisms that grow and feed on each other (parts), exchange nutrients and oxygen (connections) and form an ecosystem (goal).

Feedback Loops: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Feedback loops make systems work. They are the chains of action/reaction that shape the behavior and outcomes of systems. Feedback loops can be balancing or reinforcing. Balancing feedback loops keep things in check and prevent them from going out of control. Reinforcing feedback loops make things go faster and faster, either up or down.

Some examples:

Population growth: a reinforcing feedback loop where more babies mean more people, who make more babies, who make more people, and so on.

Thermostat: a balancing feedback loop where a hot room turns on the AC, which cools down the room, which turns off the AC, and keeps the room comfy.

Leverage Points: Big Changes with Small Moves

Leverage points are the sweet spots in a system where a little tweak can make a big difference. They can be numbers (how much or how many), structures (how things are arranged or connected), goals (what things are trying to achieve), or rules (how things are allowed or required). Leverage points are not always easy to spot; they often hide behind obvious or superficial problems or solutions and require digging deeper into the underlying causes or structures.

Some examples:

Interest rates: leverage point that changes how much money people borrow and spend, which affects how fast or slow the economy grows.

Recycling: a structure leverage point that changes how materials move from a one-way to a two-way street, which reduces how much trash and pollution we create.

Education: a goal leverage point that changes what people want and can do, which affects how well or poorly they do in life.

Mental Models: How We See and Make Sense of Systems

Mental models are the lenses that we use to look at ourselves, others, or the world. Mental models shape how we perceive and understand systems. The value of mental models depends mainly on how close they represent reality, how aware we are of them, and our ability to spot them.

Some examples of mental models are:

The Pareto Principle: 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. This mental model helps you focus on the most important and impactful aspects of any situation and eliminate the trivial ones.

The Circle of Competence: This mental model helps you avoid overconfidence and recognize your limitations and blind spots. By identifying weaknesses, we’re in a much better position to act on them.

The Confirmation Bias: We tend to seek and interpret information that confirms our existing beliefs and ignore or reject information that contradicts them. Being aware of our own biases and perspectives is a critical first step before expanding or changing them.

System Archetypes: The Usual Suspects

System archetypes are the common patterns that pop up in different contexts. They’re useful for spotting and solving problems that come from similar sources, and they’re valuable time-savers because we can reuse solutions that worked before!

Some examples of system archetypes are: Limits to growth: How fast growth hits a hard limit, resulting in an S-curve. For example, a company's sales grow until they max out their market or customers. Shifting the burden: Quick fixes hurt or delay a lasting fix, resulting in a dependence on the quick fix. For example, taking painkillers eases a headache but stops fixing the cause. Tragedy of the commons: a pattern that shows how a shared resource gets used up by selfish users, resulting in a loss or damage of the resource. For example, fishermen catch more fish than the safe level, leading to no fish left. The definition of ‘this is why we can’t have nice things’.

The Iceberg Model

The iceberg model in systems thinking is a way of getting to the bottom of a problem - not just dealing with what you can see but digging deeper to find out what’s really going on.

The goal of the Iceberg model is to go beyond the surface-level causes and symptoms. It’s a style of root cause analysis if you’re more familiar with that framework. The main difference is the gradual approach.

Let’s see the following example:

The Iceberg model is divided into 4 levels, the deeper we go the closer we are to the truth behind the apparent behavior:

  1. The Event Level This is the symptom, and in most cases, solutions are targeted at this level. If we use the example from above, the event is a person overeating.

  2. The Pattern Level This is when you start seeing repetitions. Overeating is not a single event, we can see how this happens continuously. It’s a trend.

  3. The Structure Level This is usually the external reason causing/facilitating the patterns observed in the previous level. Usually, this is not a straight answer. In our example, it can be the following: Physical: Easy access to bad food. Or, there aren’t health stores around your neighborhood. Environment: Stressful work; Your home is not prepared for exercise; Your closest friends and family members love to have a rich dinner….etc. Rituals: Deeply seated habits. Such as every time you’re bored, you eat.

  4. The Mental Model Level The beliefs, principles, and personal values that drive the behavior.

In our example, a person might be overeating because they grew up in an environment where food was a calming factor, and became an emotional crutch they resort to in similar stressful situations, leading to overeating and all the negative aspects that come with it.

This simple example can also be leveraged to apply the feedback loops we introduced earlier:

The more they’re stressed, the more they eat, and the more weight they gain, which causes even more stress, which leads to even more overeating…etc. This is a prime example of a (bad) reinforcing feedback loop.

Hopefully this -convenient- example helped clarified how all these concepts can be combined to think through problems and come up with meaningful solutions.

Systems Thinking in Action: Generalists Rock It

So that was a pretty hefty section on mostly conceptual topics, good job on getting through in one piece. In the upcoming articles, we’ll go through how all of this can be put into practice by generalists as a way towards finding true purpose. In the meantime, I wanted to share a couple of examples of people I find inspiring, that apply system thinking (and a bunch of other approaches) in their works, even if not explicitly:

Angela Duckworth: The Grit Guru

Angela Duckworth is a famous psychologist and educator who studies and promotes grit and character. She is the founder and CEO of Character Lab, a non-profit that helps schools teach character skills, and the author of the hit book ‘Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance’. She wants to know why some people make it while others don't, and she also helps students, teachers, parents, and organizations learn the skills and mindsets that lead to success and happiness. She uses systems thinking to understand and address this problem and opportunity by using some of these systems thinking ideas:

  • People and environments drive motivation, persistence, and success. She discovers that grit (sticking to a long-term goal and working hard for it) is the secret sauce of achievement.

  • She cooks up evidence-based ways to boost grit and character in students, teachers, parents, and organizations. She uses feedback loops and data to spice up these ways. For example, she develops online courses, videos, podcasts, and books on grit and character. She also builds character report cards, growth mindset lessons, and character coaching programs for schools and districts.

  • Some of her achievements and impacts are:

    • She has won prestigious awards and honors for her research, such as the MacArthur Fellowship, the Grawemeyer Award in Education, and the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professorship.
    • She has helped millions of students, teachers, parents, and organizations around the world do better and feel better. She has reached a large audience through her online courses, videos, podcasts, books, speeches, and media appearances that have taught and motivated people on how to grow grit and character.

Leyla Acaroglu: The Systems Change Maker

She’s an educator and designer who runs Disrupt Design, a creative agency that helps organizations go green. She also runs The UnSchool, a learning platform that teaches people how to think and design differently.

She faced the challenge of changing the way we think and act to solve the messy problems of our world. She also pursued the goal of turning people into change-makers and systems thinkers.

She attempts to do that in the following way:

  • Looking at how everything is connected and affects each other. Busting the myths and beliefs that make us do stupid and harmful things. Showing us the hidden costs and consequences of our actions.
  • Coming up with creative and holistic solutions that tackle the real causes of problems. Using design thinking as a way to change systems. Using games, stories, and jokes as ways to make people interested and informed about systems thinking. Looking at different points of view and scenarios by working with different kinds of people. Combining insights and findings from different fields. Tailoring her approaches and recommendations to different situations and cultures. Conclusion

If you're a generalist who wants to make a difference in a complex world, it’s important to learn to see things in their entire complexity. That’s why systems thinking is so useful. It's a skill and mindset that helps you think and solve problems holistically.

If you want to go deeper, check out these handy resources and references:

  • The Systems Thinker: A website that has everything you need to know about systems thinking.
  • The UnSchool: An experimental learning platform that offers online courses, workshops, and fellowship programs on systems thinking, design thinking, sustainability, and social innovation. The platform aims to equip people with the knowledge and skills to become change-makers and systems thinkers.

I hope you liked this article and found it helpful. Let me know what you think. Next time, we’ll see how to balance breadth and depth as a generalist.

See ya!

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This article is part of a series on the topic of generalists and how they can find their purpose. We’ll provide opinion pieces, but also practical guides as well as interviews with contemporary generalists who’ll share their journey with us. Stay tuned!