Key Aspects of the Systems Perspective

21 August 2019

A systems perspective provides essential insights for making things work properly in today’s complex world.  Some key aspects of a systems perspective include the following:

  • Considering a system as a whole, rather than just the sum of its parts. 
    • Examining the underlying structure of the system.
      • How elements of the system interact with each other.
      • How the system interacts with its environment, with exchanges of information, energy, and material.
      • What are intrinsic consequences of the system’s design. 
    • Looking at how the system functions under different conditions.
    • Looking at what forces are driving the system.
    • Examining how it exhibits emergent behavior. 
      • New behavior emerges at each level of the system that would not be predicted from what happens at a lower level.
  • Understanding that events are typically the result of a web of interacting influences, rather than having a single cause.
  • Taking a disciplined approach in one’s thinking.
    • Treating everything as working hypotheses, able to be modified on the basis of new evidence.
    • Examining and questioning assumptions; considering the effects of alternative assumptions
  • Looking towards the future, including the distant future.
    • Considering what could be the unintended consequences before taking an action.
  • Understanding feedback loops and system stability.
    • Providing timely negative feedback for system control.
    • Identifying positive feedback/self-reinforcement phenomena, which lead to system runaway behavior.
    • Watching out for system tipping points.
  • Understanding exponential phenomena.
    •  Being aware of how exponential processes differ from linear ones. 
    • Considering compound interest effects.
  • Considering whether current conditions and trends are sustainable.
  • Acknowledging the tradeoffs in a choice.
    • Weighing potential benefits against potential detriments (costs, harms, etc.).
    • Considering what will be treated as externalities and thus not taken into account.
  • Looking at the incentives present in the system.
    • Incentives tend to drive agents’ behavior.
    • Perverse incentives lead to system misbehavior. 
  • Considering the interests of all stakeholders.
    • Particularly speaking for those who have no voice (future generations, the natural world, etc.).
  • Considering value hierarchies—what is more important to the entity, what is less, and why’
  • Identifying system pathologies in order to diagnose and treat them. 
  • Endeavoring to address problems at their root level, rather focusing on their symptoms.
  • Knowing that the fix for any problem generally introduces one or more new problems.
    • Endeavoring to make sure the new problems are more tractable than the previous one.
  • Striving to incorporate learning in all system processes. 

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