Systems Thinking- What’s That?

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    It was 1968 when an obscure academic at the University of Edmonton, Ludwig Von Bertalanffy, publish the book General Systems Theory. It was the first major look at the foundations and applications of systems thinking across a broad array of practical and scientific fields. Starting with the individual organism he demonstrated that the systems view and principles extended throughout biology, physics, chemistry, philosophy and cultural anthropology as well as sociology and psychiatry. His insights were profound because they had so many implications toward a theory of development and growth.

    Living Systems

    Organizations are living systems. And every living systems is essentially an open system, it is in continuous exchange with its environment. All systems work to secure in-puts of various kinds, and transform these into valued outputs and the whole organization is open to environmental influences to which the organization must respond. Input, transformation and output: this is basic process-task in the architecture of systems.

    The systems vantage point is the whole operation within its environment operating within a steady state, which keeps it viable. The steady state is called homeostasis and relies on feedback to self-correct. It is maintained an optimal distance from equilibrium and it is what enables a system to do work. Through this steady state the system remains constant in its composition, in spite of continuous irreversible process, importing and exporting, building up and breaking down taking place. Growth is toward higher states of differentiation and complexity where there are fixed rules and flexible strategies; a principle called Eqifinality, where there are a lot of different ways to get to the same goal. One of the primary goals of any system is for balance, a regulated steady state, and there are many ways to attain balance. Systems are purposeful and they are self-controlling- they use feedback to self-correct. This is the cybernetic rather than the administrative view of the world.

    Look for Boundaries to Analyze Systems

    A systems structure is its components and attributes within a boundary. All systems and sub-systems act across boundaries. Management is always across boundaries. Organizations create specialized functions, which are differentiated from other parts of the system but then have to be integrated during the performance of a complex task. Integration and Differentiation are important “system principles.” Boundaries can be fairly open or tightly closed. To cross a boundary you have to be “coded” properly. Sub-systems are interrelated and experience different rates of change. Add to all this, is a very important principle of open systems: managing the polarities of the simultaneous need for both differentiation and integration. You can see this when you look at the different cognitive and emotional orientations of various managers and the formal structures around them. And at the same time we need integration, which is the quality of the collaboration that exists among departments that are required to achieve unity of effort by the environment. The questions that need to be asked are:

    What are the strategic parts of the system?

    What is the nature of their mutual interdependency?

    What are the main processes that link the parts and facilitate their adjustment to each other?

    What are the goals sought by the system?


    For more resources, see the Library topics Consulting and Organizational Development.


    Jim Smith has over 40 years of organization development experience in a wide range of organizations. He can be reached at Or