Overcoming Barriers to Understanding Systems Thinking
Steven V. Schneider. 1(2). July 30, 2012
Abstract. My personal experience in initial attempts to learn Systems Thinking is used to examine the barriers, commonly faced, to becoming a systems thinker. A Systems Approach is suggested as an effective way to learn the concepts used by Systems Thinkers.
The Systems Thinking Discussion Group on LinkedIn has a large membership which attests to the interest seen in Systems Thinking (ST). However, the numbers who actually participate is much smaller. My assumption was that difficulty in understanding the concepts and terminology to develop a systemic perspective caused a lack of acceptance. That is why I almost lost interest. However, I found there are numerous barriers that can impede learning and accepting ST. This article was written to help guide and support all those interested in the development of systems thinking skills by understanding personal barriers that can affect learning and acceptance of a systemic perspective. My own journey to become a Systems Thinker is used to help comprehend common roadblocks that can impede learning and the benefits which can motivate working towards goal attainment. My experience within the Systems Thinking Discussion Group on LinkedIn is, in part, used as a basis for becoming a systems thinker. Finally, a systems approach is offered as an effective resource for all who want to develop a Systemic Perspective.
My journey to become a systems thinker began with roadblocks, detours, and frustration. I became interested in systems approaches to psychological intervention after reading Thinking in Systems by Meadows (2008). Through brief self-study via numerous databases and a continuing education course, I was introduced to the Systems Thinking World (STW) discussion group on LinkedIn, which continues to be important in developing my systemic perspective. After a few more visits to STW, I came to the erroneous conclusion that ST did not seem to be a good fit. This conclusion was made due to frustration at not understanding the unfamiliar theoretical foundation, concepts and terminology which contributed to my waning motivation.
If this sounds familiar, you might be having a similar experience. It is a common assumption that almost stopped my journey before it even began. Since that time, I found ways to remove the roadblocks that kept me from developing the systemic perspective needed to become a Systems Thinker.
I also began to study the process of learning to think systemically; why some people are successful and why some are not. This helped me to understand previously unfamiliar concepts, terminology, and their applications. There is an old saying that “If I can understand it, anyone can.” In the case of ST, “If I can understand it, you will too.”
Learning how to think systemically was difficult until I could relate the material to my own work. Understanding basic Systems Thinking (ST) concepts is easier when put in the context of how they are applied. Knowing what I needed to learn, having appropriate resources and the support of the discussion group gave me the motivation to continue learning and developing important skills. It most likely did not occur to me because the need to put things in context was so obvious. Particpation in the STW discussions allowed me to compare system approaches with other methods and to see how systems made it easier to find solutions.
This article has two purposes, and one or both may apply to you. The first is to facilitate development of systems thinking skills; to guide and support acquiring what you need. The second is to increase the acceptance of systems thinking and the benefits that can be realized. Barriers to learning and using ST are frequent topics of the STW group and reading the current and past discussions showed there are many reasons for nonparticipation. I assumed the reason people do not go beyond a basic consideration of ST (which also created my barriers) were mainly due to being systemically challenged; having difficulty in learning the terminology and concepts. I found that this often has nothing to do with the actual reason. In addition to the two purposes, there are three goals I hope to achieve through this article:
1. To show that barriers to learning systems thinking are common, especially when beginning
2. To describe common difficulties, rationalizations and realities in learning an alternative way of problem-solving
3. To be a guide and support in overcoming the roadblocks to become a Systems Thinker; to show that the most effective way is by using system approaches.
Barriers to Learning and Accepting Systems Thinking
Knowledge of foundational material is important, but it is an oversimplification to say that difficulty in understanding the concepts is why ST is not more widely accepted. The path we follow in our educational journeys will often have roadblocks that can either impede progress or serve as opportunities to strengthen our motivation.
When I began my journey, trying to absorb everything I read was difficult, primarily because I did not understand what I was reading. The STW discussion group is not a real-time classroom; I could not raise my hand and immediately get an answer if I had a question. I was not even sure what my questions were. This lead to the assumption that I could not benefit from system approaches before first comprehending all of the ideas, terminology and constructs. It was unrealistic to think I needed to know everything.
My self-study approach was not effective, and the roadblocks to learning were of my own creation, which meant I could also remove them. The brief time initially spent on the STW site was encouraging and provided useful resources. Even more important, the group became the catalyst for my ST education because even though there was much I did not understand, the discussions showed me how systems thinking is used effectively through multidisciplinary cooperation. I now had the tangible context which was previously lacking. Needing an effective way to become a systems thinker, I read material from many sources and asked questions to the STW members about barriers to learning. I found there are a variety of roadblocks that can impede learning.
One of the key barriers to learning and accepting systems thinking is understanding the foundations; concepts and terminology. Any change that requires how we view the world, our work and how we relate to others can create resistance. It takes time to learn anything new and practitioners and organizations generally are committed to their current practices and need to be shown the effectiveness of ST. Ackoff (2007) noted that the practical utility of ST needs to be clearly shown and understood with little jargon in order to become widely accepted. This would involve specific guidelines in how to carry out interventions, Small. (2005).
I had to be convinced that ST was a better approach than what I had been using for many years. In some ways, my whole theoretical orientation was being challenged. Collaborating with professionals in related fields was done frequently, in the past. However, that is quite different from crossing disciplinary boundaries that is often part of system approaches. It took the support of the STW members to help get past my resistance. As I became more proficient in thinking systemically, I found the need to use more complicated technology for simulations, mapping, and research. For many of us, technology is not a problem; for others, it can be a barrier.
Although there are other reasons people choose not to accept or learn systems thinking, there is one more that is important to mention. While talking with colleagues or reading the STW discussions, I felt intimidated; that others knew much more and there was nothing I could add. Do not let a lack of knowledge let you feel intimidated. Using the STW discussion group as an example, feeling intimidated stopped me from actively participating. If you remember only one thing that resonates with you, it is that we are all at different levels. I admitted to myself there was much I did not know; then I looked at what I did know.
The Benefits Outweigh the Difficulties
A relevant question might be why someone would want to study a topic that is conceptually unfamiliar, with terminology that is not understood. The reason is that the benefits outweigh the difficulties. Systems Thinking is more than an additional intervention tool. It affects and is impacted by our view of the world; analogous to our choice of theoretical orientation. By choice or need, the world is becoming more interdependent. ST is a worldview that sees individuals and organizations as participants working on a multidisciplinary level in a larger system, rather than as single beings reacting to outside forces. Increasingly, this is becoming our reality and there is a need to be able to communicate our interests, goals, problems, and solutions.
In our work, holding on to what is comfortable and known can have benefits. I will admit that after many years of working in my profession, I was apprehensive to fully grasp the unknown because I was looking at systems thinking as an all or nothing proposition. I believed my self-constructed myth that once I began, I could not go back to my long-held beliefs. In reality, I set up a roadblock that hindered my ability to grasp ST as a better alternative. Experience taught me that changing a long-held theoretical beilief is not a simple task. In the beginning, it can be difficult to comprehend the utility, process and application of systems thinking because the concepts are new; that made the barriers I faced even more daunting. I found it helpful to return to the STW discussion group. Interacting with a group of people who have the same interests helps in regaining perspective.
I enjoyed reading the posts by members of the STW discussion group. At first, even with regular visits, it was like playing a game where only a few people knew the rules. Simulations, maps, analogies and Archetypes all seemed to be against me. I needed help, but did not know what I was looking for; everything was new. The more I understood ST, the more I understood why I was so overwhelmed. I remember having the same uneasy feelings in my first statistics class. It was unrealistic to think I would understand everything when it was new. I also found the benefit of using positive self-talk. It eventually helped to neutralize the years of negative messages heard and used to make things harder than they were.
I was concerned about catching up to everyone else in the STW group; even though there was no set starting and ending point. I did not even know where to find resources to understand the unfamiliar concepts being used. I had to keep reminding myself that what we understand occurs on a continuum, and I understood more than originally realized. In the STW discussions, I noticed certain words that were used more than others, and made it a point to learn what they meant, and how they can be applied. I did not yet consider myself to be systemically bilingual, but I was learning how to read and speak Systems. In fact, I was about to take what I considered to be a big risk. One of the new words I learned was the theme of a STW discussion topic and I posted a comment for the first time. I was anxious, tense, and self-conscious, but when I received some positive responses, my confidence increased.
More important than the discussion topic was the fact that I did not have to know everything all at once. This was continually reinforced by the STW group members. Those of us who were Systemically Challenged encouraged each other within the discussion group and I began to find the relevancy of more and more topics. I was no longer overwhelmed; just anxious and frustrated at times. If I had questions, I knew where to go for help. Continued participation in STW increased my capacity to understand a growing list of terms, how they are applied, and why they are important. The contributions I made showed that, to some degree, I had been thinking systemically for quite some, but did not know it.
Systems Thinking encompasses a great deal and as a beginner, I was imposing limits on myself by defining what I needed to know when I did not know what that was. I decided to simply continue to experience the mutual support of the Systems World Discussion Group. Through continued active participation, STW was becoming more than a place to learn. The more I posted the more system thinkers I met. I was developing a stronger foundation with which to evaluate how ST approaches are used, and the value they have on a multidisciplinary level. The literature I read was no longer limited to only my field of study. Within STW, I found the discussion posts contained links that helped to see the application within other fields, which in turn, helped me see a larger picture. That larger picture is what systems is all about and I was ready for a more systematic system of learning as I continued on my journey.
Rejection, Dejection, Connection
I posted a comment to the STW group asking for the best way to become a systems thinker. Within a few hours I received a reply from one of our members who also happens to moderate the discussions. The reply was unexpected and said:
“I have no interest in teaching anyone Systems Thinking as I think it’s a complete waste of time and effort” (Bellinger, 2012).
Keep in mind; this was from a man who is highly respected systems thinker. I was not angry; I was numb and then got mad. All of that could have been avoided if I read the complete reply which said, “
“What I think is important is supporting the development of one’s capacity to develop an understanding of a situation to an extent where a strategy may be developed for addressing the situation with a high level of confidence that implementing the strategy will produce the intentioned results and there is not likely to be a myriad of unexpected consequences” (Bellinger, 2012).
Sure, that’s easy for him to say. Now, I had to find out what he meant. That proved easier than I thought because the STW members commented on it.
I always thought that if a person has no interest in helping, there is little room for debate; except in this case I misinterpreted the response. However, the incident taught me that the best way to learn systems approaches and develop systems thinking skills is through the facilitation, guidance, and support of others. There is a clear parallel with adult learning theory which advocates receiving help, as opposed to “traditional instruction” in order to fully develop ones capacity to understand.
It did not take long to develop an appreciation for how system sapproaches are applied and how effective they can be. The real proof came when I started having more explicit questions. I just needed to find out what to do or where to go to continue my education and the answer was not easily found. There are more ways to develop these skills than I thought. I needed a system to find a system.
Facilitation, Guidance, and Support
I found the idea of Systems Thinking to be intriguing. The way others talked about how it can be applied led me to begin my own journey to become a Systems Thinker. Along the way, I met experts, beginners, and every category in between. It can be a benefit to anyone willing to learn and develop the needed skills. I believe it can transform failure into success; problems into solutions; individual attempts to intervene into multidisciplinary resolution of complex problems. While this article was originally written for beginning system thinkers, anyone, at any level can benefit from continued guidance and support. The resources and approaches you will find are based on what I would have wanted at the beginning of my journey. I also remember what created frustration as I tried to grasp important systems concepts. When resources are introduced in this article and those to follow, they will be presented in a way to simplify the process of learning how to think systemically.
There is so much available in books, journals, the Internet, and schools that choosing what works for you before you know what you need can be overwhelming. The path I will describe is what worked for me. I hope you feel the same way, but at least you will have an easier time making an informed choice. What follows is a systems approach to systems thinking through Systems Thinking World (STW).
We are Wired to Think Systemically
You are already a Systems Thinker, because you were born that way. Roadblocks to learning will impact only how proficient you become in using the innate skills you already have. Research in neuropsychology and social psychology continues to provide evidence for this (Goleman, 2006). People have sensitivity to systemic patterns that can affect how information is acquired and understood (Hamalainen & Saarinen, 2008). One example is how infants react to the environment through a systemic behavioral pattern which can change due to conditioned behavior. People who naturally use some of the characteristics attributed to systems thinking (i.e. global view, solution-focused, multidisciplinary strategies), show the ability to solve complex problems; even if they are unfamiliar with the systemic perspective involved. Compared to those who are satisfied with business as usual, tsystems thinkers look for answers through multiple sources, and are aware of how their decisions will affect the greater whole (Maani & Maharaj, 2004).
More mainstream, traditional approaches may fail to solve complex problems because they do not follow our natural inclinations to use systems approaches. I cannot point to any specific studies for validation, but intuition tells me there may be some basis for this. Additionally, in all fields, performance is based on what you know, as well as your ability to do it. That last part is the art of doing work. As you gain experience, your efficiency and proficiency improves. Systems Thinking skills are no different; and knowing that reduced the tension, and increased the confidence I had in achieving my goals. Adults learn best when there are a variety of options available and when they are given guidance and support. Interacting and learning from and with others helped me to understand ST; I was immersed in its many applications from the view of multiple disciplines.
The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn, but I wanted to see more examples of how ST is used and how it was possible to work with people in fields other than my own. I became convinced that my approach to learning ST needed to be within an environment of Systems Thinkers. This is one of the key reasons I feel the Systems Thinking World Discussion Group should be part of any Systems Thinkers beginning and ongoing education. and will be described in more detail later in this and subsequent articles.
Pathways and Detours
Regardless of your level of proficiency or reason for wanting it there is not just one way to begin or continue an educational journey. The following is what worked for me and continues to do so. However, like any journey, there are detours. I was no longer just beginning, but there was still much to understand. To simplify the process, I first defined what I wanted, which was to develop a systemic perspective. It was also important to have easy access to simple explanations of concepts and terminology as well as the ability to access additional and more advanced information as needed. From experience, I found interacting with Systems Thinkers to be highly beneficial, and knew that continued participation in the Systems Thinking World Discussion Group on LinkedIn would be part of any new approach.
Given all that is available, I was still hoping to find the least number of resources that covered the most information in a variety of formats. What I found met all of my criteria and has become an important part of my professional and personal life; all within one web site. Essentially that is true, but not in the strict definition of “one.” All you need to know is how to access one website, Systems Thinking World. The links on almost any page will take you wherever you want to go.
Systems Thinking World
Systems Thinking World, Inc. can be the most complex or easiest compilation of systems material; it just depends on how you approach it. If you have a system (the pun was definitely intended), it can become your best friend. My intent is to explain the resources contained within Systems Thinking World, Inc very simply and to help you to understand this comprehensive resource without becoming even more overwhelmed. The premise is: “We believe a systemic perspective provides the best foundation for creating effective approaches for dealing with challenges and shaping a better tomorrow. Our purpose is to create content and foster interactions which furthers understanding of a systemic perspective and enables thinking and acting systemically” (Bellinger, 2012). The contributors strongly believe in these words which guide the creation of everything contained within. This is the home of the Systems Thinking Community.
I found it helpful to think of Systems Thinking World, Inc. as a mansion with many wings and rooms. As a member of the Systems Thinking community, you can now say that you live in a mansion; just don’t say it loudly, especially when people are nearby. A tour of the mansion might help you become more comfortable; fortunately, there are no hidden passageways. Just a word of caution: When I finally find a great deal of information on a topic of interest, my tendency is to take as much of it as I can in one session. That is not a good idea, but I wouldn’t tell you what you can and cannot do, except in this case: Take it slow. Our educational journeys are set up to develop Systems Thinking skills; not to ingest as much as we can in the shortest amount of time. In order to be sure you do not jump too far ahead (and become even more frustrated), reflect on how much new information you can realistically take in and comprehend.
I spend most of my time in just one wing of the mansion, and would like to start there. Just be aware that when you are ready, there is more to see. It helps to start out slowly, but to head-off potential confusion here is what is important right now:
Systems Thinking World Wiki
This is one of the main wings, and is made up of educational areas. Each can be visualized as one room in this wing. I spend quite a bit of time here to help me understand the foundational concepts and terminology. It will continue to provide me with the information to develop my system thinking skills. It contains many different rooms and to give you a better idea, a limited number of the rooms (content areas) are given below; the entire list is comprehensive and the intent is not to overwhelm you:
Systems Thinking Discussion Group on LinkedIn: This is the primary communications environment forming a community for those who believe or are motivated by the founding premise presented earlier. It provides interactions with other system thinkers. This was the catalyst for my interest in ST.
Systems Thinking World Wiki: This is the primary repository for content developed by/for/with the community for the community.
Systems Thinking World Webinars: Gives you access to a set of sessions intended to promote understanding in various areas associated with the development of a Systemic Perspective.
Presents educational webinars on systems thinking and related topics.
Systems Thinking World Journal (STWJ): You are reading it right now. STWJ which was created by Barry Clemson, is a peer-reviewed journal that is based on and a continuation of the STW discussion group.
I hope this article and those to follow will help you to develop an understanding and acceptance of a Systemic Perspective. If you decide to visit the Systems Thinking World Wiki website to look at the content, approach it as if you were visiting a foreign country. It takes time and exposure to understand the language and customs. In a similar way, as you immerse yourself in Systems Thinking, you will become much more comfortable. The Internet address is http://www.systemswiki.org/index.php?title=Main_Page. The next article will cover an overview of Systems Thinking World Wiki, how to use it, and the Systems Thinking World Discussion Group on LinkedIn.
It is recommended you begin visiting the STW Discussion Group on LinkedIn. The discussion group can be found at: http://www.linkedin.com/groups/Systems-Thinking-World-2639211?gid=2639211. Except for the group rules (posted on the site), you can jump right in; do not feel you have to participate. There are some things I would liked to have known when I began to visit the discussion group. In next article I will share those with you along with the experiences I had, roadblocks I found, and how those were used to create assets. The beginning of your journey should be much smoother than mine.
Dr. Steven Schneider is on the faculty in the Department of Psychology at Capella University and has specializations in developmental disabilities and addiction psychology. He practiced psychology in inpatient and outpatient settings, was adjunct faculty in special education and psychology, and taught special education on the elementary, junior high and high school levels. Through Academic Skills, LLD, he publishes manuals on professional writing to help simplify the process of learning academic skills. Dr. Schneider’s current interests are related to Systems Thinking, the learning process, addictions, 12-Step programs, and spirituality. Systems Thinking is the thread that weaves all of these areas together.
Staff helping with this article. Editor: Barry Clemson. Reviewers: Gene Belllinger, George McConnell, Beth Robinson, Nicolas Stampf, Richard Wright.
Ackoff, R. L. (2007). Why few organizations adopt systems thinking. Primer Project. Retrieved
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Reference details for this article
Schneider, S. V. (2012). Overcoming barriers to understanding systems thinking. Systems Thinking World Journal: Reflection in Action. [Online Journal]. 1(2). [Referred 2012-07-30]. Available:http://stwj.systemswiki.org . ISSN-L 2242-8577 ISSN 2242-8577