Systems Thinking in a Bar

People assume that systems exist, but they are nothing more than abstractions in our minds. They exist because we think.

What would happen when there was a gathering of a dozen systems thinkers in a bar? I’m sure they would have discussions about interesting questions, such as:

  • What exactly is the bar?
  • Are the people here part of the bar?
  • Is the beer part of the bar?
  • If we drink the beer, is it still part of the bar?
  • What if my beer and I go outside, are we then part of the bar?
  • Is the bar a system?
  • What is the purpose of the bar?

At this point the systems thinkers will probably get into a bar fight, and at some point Peter Senge might be ejected through the window.

Systems in Our Mind

We have these discussions and disagreements about systems because people assume that systems actually exist.

By formulating a research aim to uncover the fundamental characteristics of systems of various kinds, we were making the unquestioned assumption that the world contained such systems.

– Peter Checkland, Systems Thinking, Systems Practice

But it turns out that the universe actually does not contain systems. The universe couldn’t care less about systems. What we call “systems” are nothing more than figments of our imagination… abstractions in our minds.

There are no separate systems. The world is a continuum. Where to draw a boundary around a system depends on the purpose of the discussion – the questions we want to ask.

– Donella H. Meadows, Thinking in Systems

If we want to decide whether or not something must be treated as a system, we first need to consider what part of the world we want to look at, and what questions we want to answer.

A system is a way of looking at the world.

– Gerald M. Weinberg, Introduction to General Systems Thinking

The Purpose of Systems Thinking

Systemsthinking-in-a-bar-2Therefore, to answer the important question, “Is the beer I’m drinking a part of the bar?” we must decide what the purpose is of our question. Are we discussing the history of the bar? Its profitability? Its culture? Or its impact on the sewer? This is relevant in order to decide if your beer is still part of the bar when you’re drinking it.

Systems only exist because we think about them.

By the way, I think this could make it very easy to solve the Euro crisis. We just have to convince 400 million people to stop thinking about it.

Are you interested in systems? Why not check out the Top 15 systems thinking books!

(This text is part of the Complexity Thinking presentation you can find on SlideShare.)

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  • BrianSJ

    When in a bar with fellow systems thinkers, we set to updating the menu from Ploughman’s Lunch, Shepherd’s Pie. A System Integrator’s Pie would be the same recipe but much more expensive and you’d have to wait ages for it to be delivered.
    The point from the Jerry Weinberg definition is that every system requires a viewpoint. Looking at a dozen system thinkers in a bar could be part of the flows of a conference system, the flows of a pub marketing system, the end of the world as we know it etc.

  • PeterB

    Hi Jurgen,
    my problem with the answers mentioned above is: they remind
    me too much of classical philosophical debates (idealism vs.
    realism or the mind vs. the world).
    I’d say we can dig much “deeper” today with distinction-based approaches such as “deconstruction” (Derrida & Co) or “sociological systems theory” (Niklas Luhmann & Co). And then we have to deal not with “systems” (as a kind of “thing”), but with
    * dynamically processed “distinctions”,
    * paradoxical phenomena of self-reference,
    * communication processes (the social as an emergent dimension sui generis).
    If we adopt those difference- and self-referenced-based, communication oriented (sociological) positions, a lot of the
    traditional assumptions (me vs. the world, “my” thinking creates entities in the world, systems as “thing-like entities”, the world as a continuum, etc.) simply disappear.
    What do we gain? Much more insight in social phenomena and much more difficult to solve problems 🙂
    But I agree with the sentence ” […] we must decide what the purpose is of our question.” in the sense of:
    * What are the (constructed) reality levels (technical, mathematical, neurological, psychological, sociological, etc.) we refer to?
    * What are our reference paradigms / theories?
    * What is the position regarding idealistic, realistic and constructivist variants?
    Without such specifications, we don`t know what we`re talking about when refering to “systems” and “complexity”.
    Consequently, the resulting discussion remains vague and leads to a non scientific (= completely arbitrary) Humpty-Dumpty-approach: “A system is a system when I say it`s a system”.
    Best regards

  • Joseba

    Cogito ergo sum…. do systems think about anything ? Hold on, we are systems, aren’t we ? Carpe diem, let’s go to the bar 😉

  • Telecommunications Company

    The point from the Jerry Weinberg definition is that every system requires a viewpoint. Looking at a dozen system thinkers in a bar could be part of the flows of a conference system

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