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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