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Apr 27 / Gene Bellinger

Unleashing Understanding

Author: Gene Bellinger. Volume 1. Issue 1. Article Date: April 26, 2012.
Abstract: This paper shows how to improve your systems thinking immediately … without doing a university course or reading 15 books.

Dedicated to The Knights Who Say Nee!
for the other words they cannot hear.

Experience is something between complete novelty and boring confirmation (Jantsch, 1980). Between those two extremes, experience connects with past learning, and where that experience extends our understanding it represents learning. And we are unaware of much of that learning because it happens in the background while our focus is on other things. With an improved awareness of this learning one can substantially improve their capacity to create the future desired with far fewer unintended consequences. This paper supports that improved awareness and is dedicated to all those who claim that Systems Thinking is too hard, too complicated, or has too many discipline unique words

While we may ponder the past, or the future, we live in the moment, and what we are consciously aware of are events that manage to get our attention. Though we may not be consciously aware of networks of interactions we learn from recurring patterns of interactions just the same.

Consider the following… (Bellinger, Castro, Mills, n.d.)

  • I have a box.
  • The box is 3′ wide, 3′ deep, and 6′ high.
  • The box is very heavy.
  • The box has a door on the front of it.
  • When I open the box it has food in it.
  • It is colder inside the box than it is outside.
  • You usually find the box in the kitchen.
  • There is a smaller compartment inside the box with ice in it.
  • When you open the door the light comes on.
  • When you move this box you usually find lots of dirt underneath it.
  • Junk has a real habit of collecting on top of it.
  • What is it?

Somewhere in the midst of reading this list of clues, most people realized “refrigerator”. And while different people might connect after a different number of clues, the order of the clues isn’t really that relevant. Seldom does one think about a refrigerator as a network of relationships, though somewhere along the way this “refrigerator” network of relationships was learned. The list represents 100% confirmation of something you already know, though for anyone that had never experienced a refrigerator the list would represent 100% novelty (Jantsch, 1980), and they would still be wondering what was being described.

We have actually been learning about recurring networks of relationships our entire life, though because events of the moment are what get our attention, we’ve generally not been aware of this subconscious learning.

Consider the following…

  • All day it has been extremely hot with very high humidity though now all of a sudden the temperature has started to drop rapidly and the wind is picking up.

Depending on where one lives it’s either about to rain or there’s going to be a tornado? This network of relations has been experienced so many times that one doesn’t even have to consciously think about it to know what’s about to happen.

There is an endless array of networks of relations we have learned over time and they serve us well (Bellinge, KM). And while this endless array of networks of interactions is responsible for the events we experience, the majority of them fall into a small number of recurring patterns.

  • After a fix is applied, in time the problem returns
  • An applied fix seems to overshoot the goal or there is oscillation
  • An applied fix creates new problems or declines elsewhere
  • Over time there is a tendency to allow standards to slip
  • Partners for growth become adversaries
  • Limitations experienced are believed to result from insufficient capacity
  • Removing one limitation to growth reveals new limits
  • Shared limited resources are exhausted by participants

What we learn about networks of relations generally serves us well, though there are times when a network of relations is more complex than we realize and operates in a counterintuitive manner. In these cases we need to develop a better understanding of the network of relations. Our subconscious understanding is inadequate. We might think this is a difficult undertaking, though actually it takes only one question: AND?

There’s an old Sufi saying regarding AND…

Because you understand 1 you think you understand 2 because 1 and 1 = 2.
But first you must understand AND
If networks of relations sometimes act counter-intuitively, how might we employ AND? to sort them out?

It’s always good to start with a focus question that warrants more than a yes or no answer, and helps us to stay focused.

So here’s an example: “Why is it that every year I have to spray more to kill the insects damaging my crops?”

Before we delve into this, let’s think back to the refrigerator and the impending rain for a moment. For these networks of relations there is an image that one can relate to. It’s the image, or the picture, in our mind that allows us to keep track of, or pull all the pieces of the network of relations together into something coherent. The same is true as we work out the implications of AND? During the next few paragraphs we’ll work out a notational convention to keep track of the network of relations while investigating the insects damaging my crops.

The first conventions deal with insects and crops, which actually represents the focus question, and we’ll depict this as follows (Aronson, n.d.) …

Fig. 1 – Insects Eating Crops [IM-295]

In Fig. 1 we have two elements of the network of relations we’re endeavoring to uncover, i.e., crop eating insects and crop damage. There are actually two relations between these two elements; first, the leads to part indicating what the influence is; and second, the relation is in blue with an arrow pointing to crop damage to indicate that crop eating insects adds to or moves crop damage in the same direction, e.g, more insects results in more crop damage. The Plus Sign “+” has the same meaning as the blue relation and can be used in situations where color is not available.

The question is “AND now what?” Since the crop damage is unwanted the most natural response is to apply pesticide.

Fig. 2 – Spray for Insects [IM-295]

Here again in Fig. 2 we have another adds to or moves in the same direction relation because more crop damage would provide an even stronger influence to apply pesticide. And all of this is done, as depicted in Fig. 3, to get rid of the crop eating insects.

Fig. 3 – Control Insects [IM-295]

Fig. 3 adds the relation between apply pesticide and crop eating insects as which kills. This is represented in red because the relation is meant to reduce or move in the opposite direction, i.e., more pesticide kills, or results in fewer, insects. The B1 graphic in the center is meant to indicate the loop is a Balancing Loop meant to Control Insects, and 1 meaning the first one, i.e., crop eating insects leads to action meant to limit the crop eating insects therefore creating a balance.

As an aside, with the completion of the loop in B1 the traditional notion of cause and effect falls by the wayside. The interaction of the elements of a loop structure operating together have far more impact than a simple cause and effect relation and in a sense everything becomes its own cause. We can think of this as Crop eating insects are responsible for their own death and they use the farmer to accomplish that. Not to worry, the headache caused by this won’t last too long.

If this network of relations is intended to take care of the pest problem, and it doesn’t, then an appropriate question might be, “AND what else is happening that’s not represented in this picture?”

Fig. 4 – Insects Multiply (R2) [IM-295]

Crop eating insects have insect births which increases the number of crop eating insects. This relationship R2 Population Growth is referred to as a Reinforcing Loop because the relationship encourages more of whatever is happening. Because pesticides don’t kill all the crop eating insects the ones that survive multiply and add to the crop eating insects requiring spraying next year. R2 also serves as another example of a loop structure where all the elements are their own cause.

Does this answer the question of why more and more spray is required every year? We should ask, “AND what else does the pesticide do besides kill crop eating insects?”

Fig. 5 – Pesticide Immunity (R3) [IM-295]

Insects are marvelously resilient creatures and as depicted in Fig. 5 insects tend to develop an immunity to pesticide. And it just so happens that this immunity creates Reinforcing Loop (R3) where apply pesticide promotes pesticide immunity which tends to counteract the result from apply pesticide thus resulting in more crop eating insects leading to more crop damage which promotes more apply pesticide. We have created a very vicious reinforcing loop R3 Immunity which essentially says, “The more you spray the more you’ll have to spray.” which is not at all a desirable situation.

If pesticides are taking me in the absolutely wrong direction and I wasn’t overrun by pests before I started spraying, “AND what else is happening here?”

Fig. 6 – Predator Insects (R4) [IM-295]

Fig. 6 shows that there are natural predators for the crop eating insects and these controlling insects devour the crop eating insects. Unfortunately, apply pesticides also kills these controlling insects as well as the crop eating insects. This results in a another very vicious Reinforcing Loop (R4) where apply pesticides kills controlling insects and fewer of them devour fewer crop eating insects which leads to more crop damage which encourages me to apply pesticides even more, though it’s absolutely the wrong thing to do.

Addressing the balance between both kinds of insects before the initial planting might have been an even more insightful approach to actually avoiding the situation.

AND so what’s the answer? Actually the answer is right in front of us in the diagram and part of the basis for Organic Gardening. If we stop applying pesticides and promote the development of more controlling insects they will keep the crop eating insects in check. However there are always one more AND’s to consider.

  • AND once the controlling insects decimate the crop eating insects what will they eat next?
  • AND with more crop eating insects what is likely to show up to eat them?
  • AND?
  • AND?
  • AND?

This long winded example intended to show that developing a better understanding of a complex network of relations requires only the simplest question AND?. For each element in the network we ask AND what else does this element affect, AND what else affects this element. This is Systems Thinking in action.

We can’t continue asking AND? forever. We have to establish a boundary that defines what to include and what to ignore. The boundary is a key part of system thinking because the boundary, improperly defined, may include far too much or may omit crucial elements. Getting other to help us think about our network of relations is helpful. And the diagram of relationships provides an excellent foundation for discussion.

While further elaboration is possible I will stop here, AND has the point been adequately made? Developing pictures of networks of relations is essential to understand because there are generally too many interactions to keep track of without a diagram. The only way to fully understand the implications of a network of relations is with a quantitative simulation, though that represents a substantial jump in the expertise required.

In closing I suggest that there are numerous opportunities to improve our systems thinking and unleash our understanding. For example, why is it that…

  • Adding additional resources to a late project only makes it later.
  • Building more low income housing in a community only increases the need for low income housing.
  • Practicing time management only increases the need for time management.

There are an endless number of counter intuitive situations in which it is helpful to use the simple system thinking technique of asking AND?

System thinking can be approached as a doctoral level program of study. In fact, MIT offers a PhD in System Dynamics, which is where our diagramming conventions originated. However, not all of us need a PhD and everyone can do entry level systems thinking with the simple question AND? AND, no one begins with the PhD. We all begin with small steps and, if interest or need takes us deeper, we then proceed with further small steps into this world of system thinking.

Gene Bellinger has been a passionate Systems Thinker since reading Stafford Beer’s “Platform for Change” over three decades ago. Having worked in numerous industries Systems Thinking has continued to be the consistent thread running though all the various engagements. Gene is the creator of and host of the Systems Thinking World discussion group on LinkedIn and continues to promote the broader adoption of Systems Thinking as a meaningful worldview.

Staff who worked on this article. Editor: Barry Clemson. Reviewer: Nicolas Stampf.


Ackoff, R. L. (n.d.). Why Few Organizations Adopt Systems Thinking. Retrieved May 2012
Aronson, D. (n.d). Targeted Innovation: Using Systems Thinking to Increase the Benefits of Innovation Efforts. Retreived May 2012
Bellinger, G. (n.d.) Knowledge Management: Emerging Perspectives. Retrieved May 2012
Bellinger, G., Castro, D. and Mills, A. (n.d.). Data, Information, Knowledge and Wisdom. Retrieved May 2012.
Forrester, J. W. (1995). Counter Intuitive Behavior of Social Systems. Retrieved May 2012
Jantsch, E. (1980). The Self-Organizing Universe: Scientific and Human Implications of the Emerging Paradigm of Evolution. Pergamon

Citation details for this article:

Bellinger, Gene. (2012). Unleashing Understanding. Systems Thinking World Journal: Reflection in Action. [Online Journal]. Vol. 1 Issue 1. [Referred 2012-04-26]. Available: . ISSN-L 2242-8577  ISSN 2242-8577

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  1. VisTRan / Apr 30 2012

    Thanks for this, very easy to follow, useful and purposeful.

    It’s interesting to see how you use AND for additional loops, I’ll reflect on that. I’ve been creating flow charts with negative and positive feedback loops (in red and green) and find they are useful to explain the harm, or continual improvement that can be created within a system, by being aware of what are the better things to do.

    I use the ‘five why’s’ quite a lot, trying to get to a root cause of a problem, it’s quite incredible how that can work unrehearsed in a workshop discussing an issue for the first time.

    I mainly work in the public sector and use a term of ‘multiple root (special)cause’, which annoys statisticians, but too often work evolves and is never designed, and is often is tampered with…. off to start crop dusting!

  2. Easyebes / May 6 2012

    Thank you for the intro, it was easy to follow, as VisTRan notes. I have just begun my official journey into systems thinking and look forward to future posts!

  3. souradeep / May 19 2012

    Nice read. I am hoping to see more of these articles around system thinking – such a simple method for analyzing complex problems. I would have named this article as “unleashing deeper understanding”.

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