Design & Systems Thinking and Complexity

Making sense of our organisations

Systems thinking with regard to organisations is conceptually very simple, it is a particular way of looking at the organisation, its environment, customers, and its place in the industry it is in, and everything that it is a part of it. When people start to see their organisation and role by seeing with a systems thinking mindset, they gain a perspective of it that is whole and interconnected, and this leads them to understand how it can work in a fundamentally different way to traditional reductionist understanding. However, if you search for definitions of Systems Thinking it often creates more confusion than it solves. I would encourage those who wish to find out to search for definitions that they understand.

The more difficult part of this, is getting to that place of thinking systemically. Unfortunately there are no clear ways of doing that, and there are many weird and wonderful interpretations of how to get there. In this blog I will use Design Thinking as a comparison, because there are similarities with ST due to the fact that they are both ways of seeing and understanding that are more fundamental to rational and mental analysis.

Design Thinking and Systems Thinking

Design Thinking was coined by someone awhile back (who and when is not important in this post). It became the subject of a ‘paper’ and then become increasingly recognised. Then, someone else came along and made some significant and new strides in a direction of product development that they then linked to Design Thinking. What is so great about Design Thinking is the reluctance for those operating in that field to strictly define it, and more importantly to resist attempts to standardise and codify it. The day that happens will be the day it begins to die.
So, we’re all doing some Design Thinking out there, and we all have slightly different approaches and ways. We are learning from each other, from those who dont do it very well, to those who seem to be naturally aligned. What Design Thinkers are not doing, is to create academic works that define it.

Design thinking has always been around well before it was named. It is when we define it, name it, and then attempt to codify it does it then lose what it actually is. For those involved in this, you will know what I mean, and the excellent book Design Thinking Doing reflects this approach.

Systems Thinking on the other hand, seems to have been defined early on by different small groups who were academically focused. While there is nothing wrong with that, much of Systems Thinking today seems to appeal to those who have focused on the academic aspect primarily. On the other hand there are many who use Systems Thinking in the workplace, disconnected from the theory, but they have no united voice or way to group together in the community way that Design Thinking has.

Learning Systems Thinking? It’s not so Straightforward

It is very difficult for many people to truly get help in understanding the first rungs of the ladder of Systems Thinking unless you plunge into the theory. So I want to separate Systems Thinking with systems theory. They are both quite different, and I suspect that many will first meet with systems theory when embarking on this journey of learning and discovery. A really interesting observation about those who focus on systems theory is the danger of believing that the theory is it. Theory is a rational and reductionist way of looking at anything, academia is not the reality. Systems theory, when compared to Systems Thinking in action is worlds apart. They cannot really be compared because each are on diffrerent levels of reality. Each are not directly connected to each other, but they are directly linked. Theory is our human and very limited interpretation using language, of constructs, and something that is far more profound. As an example, when we use a model to describe something, we are not describing that thing directly. It is and always will be an artificial construct that we create to help us understand, and often it is a poor relation to the real thing. Theory might help someone to become a Systems Thinker and for many this is the route for them, but it can also confuse and teach us about structured constructs and models only. Looking at Systems Thinking through a Systems Thinking lens, we would never reduce it to its component parts and then ‘teach’ those. Far better to experience Systems Thinking, and learn from that.

We need methodologies to help others in organisations to learn, but that methodology is not or ever will be Systems Thinking itself. The methodology or approach anyone takes is their way of undergoing a journey of Systems Thinking learning or application.

What is Systems Thinking? I have chickened out and am going to rely on someone else to do this. This is a good place to hear someone talking about systems thinking, and how it fits into Design, Russ Ackoff

And here is a definition that I find related to my work:
Systems thinking is a ‘mental model’ of how we see and talk about our realities that help us to better understand and work with ‘systems’ that influence and shape the quality of our lives, Greth Evans Msc.

Navigating the Systems thinking Environment

Focusing on the the correct definition of theory above all else can sometimes be characterised by people expressing particular behaviours, especially on social media. I have found that these not only hinder learning, but often do not help. This is what I sometimes witness:
1. A belief that the more theory you know, the more ‘right’ you must be, and that seems to drive point scoring when someone says or writes something the other finds inaccurate.
2. That theory is primary over and above actual Systems Thinking.
3. A belief that systems theory IS Systems Thinking, and the accuracy of words are used to argue points and justify superiority (I cannot understand how this happens).
4. A strange aggressive, negative and egoistic mindset and behaviour that often belittles and ridicules those who are not in agreement with their way of approaching this. They often attack and deride others who are simply trying to learn. Fundamentalism beats pragmatism in this ‘game’ and it becomes a battle of clever words mixed in with quiet bullying.
5. An increasingly closed mindset that prevents that person from learning.
6. A belief that constructs, theories, methodologies, models or outcomes are Systems Thinking.

Sometimes perfectly normal and rational people become seemingly posessed by some sort of primeval behaviours!

One sad result is that Systems Thinking has not achieved anywhere near the impact that it should have.

When applied to organisations, Systems Thinking should be reversing the impact of reductionist, Taylorism and rigid scientific thinking; it should be pointing us to novel ways of seeing and managing. It could be heralding new benefits that coincide with Design Thinking and its associated mindset and culture. Design Thinking and Systems Thinking go hand in hand. For me, part of the beauty and power of Systems Thinking is its inclusion of everything that incorporates the total aspects of organisations, including human beings and their behaviour.

And as for my journey, I was lucky enough to meet some people who have spent much time analysing theories, but more importantly, to learn from the reality of current organisations and how we operate within them. Putting that theory into practice. For me, the understanding and application of Systems Thinking has developed through experience, a mindset of learning, and the application of ideas and concepts to discover their impact. Design Thinking could have gone down the same sorry path as Systems Thinking, but it luckily got led by those who were open, flexible and understood emergence of thinking through learning.

Moving Forward

What do I suggest for others to move forward? I am not exactly sure, and I would welcome suggestions. I would encourage learners to seek out those who they resonate with, and reject those who they dont. Read, connect, visit, and work with those you find attracted to, and move away from those who you find express behaviours and attitudes that repulse. Thats what I did, and it has helped me. Oh, and the most important thing, practice it, do it, make mistakes and apply and learn.

I have found that Systems Thinking that is published is often applied to world problems, or natural systems, or derived from the early days of Engineering. If we look at the models and concepts that are created to communicate that type of application of Systems Thinking, I find that they can be often unhelpful to learn from when looking at services and organisations. I dont recognise the similarity of an organisation being a natural ‘thing’ like a cell or a human body, nor is it a logical robot, and as such perhaps be courageous enough to create your own understanding of organisations when helping yourself to think more systemically.

The way I understand how able someone is to see an organisation through a Systems Thinking lens is to have a conversation with them, and listen to how how they see and therefore speak about that organisation. Their concepts and how they express them will link to their thinking.


Complexity, It messes with our Rationality. Let go of that rationality as a cage and allow complexity to become normal.

Understanding complexity, and therefore releasing my prevailing and rational mindset, has helped me to understand why I failed to sustain much of what I was trying to do in the past, with managing operations and people, implementing change, creating and implementing IT systems. I, like so many others, have looked back and seen the frustration and struggle to ‘get things to stick’ and how I used to blame others for that failure.

What I now realise, apart from a different style of management in general, is that the mechanisms (control, skills, behaviours, etc) that operate with complexity, are quite different to the mechanisms that are needed to dealing with complicated but rational services and problems.

Understanding when to use which ones helps managers to understand why sometimes their efforts are successful or futile.

In the public sector in particular, managers that I come across assume that their learned understanding of management is rooted in those derived from complicated rational systems. There are many resources now available at the click of a button, so I wont go into details here, but I have found the simplicity of Grint a very helpful starting point.

My Expected Outcomes of Good Service Design

As an exercise, which I do not know if has any value out not, I have decided to write a first draft of a set of Good Service Design principles. (I was inspired by Rams the product designers principles). Any feedback would be welcome, as I expect these principles to change significantly:

It is innovative — based on the new rather than a rehash of the current approach. It is unique.

It is an elegant design — it has been designed end to end, and flows to fit the value it creates.

The system the Service is a part of can be described systemically and simply to anyone.

It is efficient, in that the work performed contains only those activities necessary to its achievement.

It is designed from an outside-in perspective, and therefore achieves the purpose of the service.

It is sustainable and has the ability to adapt to the nature of the changes in the organisation and wider system.

The Foundations of what I do

These are some of my Systems Thinking & Complexity principles listed, that I use as a foundation to what I do.

The Service workflow is designed end to end.

That the fundamentals of the design is created from the Purpose of the service. This immediately places the focus of understanding from an outside-in perspective.

That the leaders thinking, assumptions and behaviours creates the whole environment within which the Service operates in. These need to align to managing complexity and systems thinking to create a new organisation design.

How we understand and learn about the Service as a system, (the organisational measures and behaviours around the measures), drives the behaviours of the staff and the culture.

How leaders control, act and communicate within their hierarchy has to match the characteristics of the Service, with regard to complexity, variety, etc.

Real learning through fundamental mental shifts are difficult to achieve. This often happens whilst people are connected to the work itself. It hardly happens in a rational environment through teaching or reading. (Ref Argyris & Schon). Systems thinking is real, and that reality is not possible to directly comprehend through any human form of communication, it can only be experienced. Its understanding lies directly in the human-ness that we are, with regard to our individual world views.

Change is led by those responsible for the service, working together with those in the service to create the change.

Real change and changing thinking/ mindset/ paradigm, is a journey that each person has to take themselves, and in their way. It rarely can be forced, or ‘done to’. This is about helping those to undergo the journey; I facilitate, lead, encourage, create the path.

Regardless of the organisation and system characteristics,

this is primarily about human beings working together to solve the problems of other human beings.

Team working, behaviours, direct communication, respect, humanity, are all key aspects of this work.

Digital Design follows from this Service Design, and the human and formal interactions that are created.

It is easy to remember theory with the mind; the problem is to remember with the body. The goal is to know & do instinctively. Having the spirit to endure the training & practice is the first step on the road to understanding.

Taiichi Ohno.

  1. The ability to put aside ones own views, beliefs, stated positions and truly learn from others that do not share your perspective.
  2. Realise that judging other is in itself a limiting action, and it inhibits point 1.
  3. Realising that others are different to ourselves, so their journey, whilst different to ours, may be valid for them.
  4. That to truly understand, words that have been written, data, presentations, case studies, are all no substitute to actually visiting a situation with that person, and witnessing what they are doing.

a real public sector service design blog.