Three levels of System Thinking

In a recent blog post:  three kinds of “thinking” are described – Analytical, Lateral and Critical thinking. Following is our take on this subject:

In our view, every activity and/or solution is an INPUT/TRANSFORMATION/OUTPUT system.

TRANSFORMATION represents the Phenomena pertinent to the activity. Understanding the Transformation implicitly, explicitly or through inference/intuition is the “SCIENCE”. Application of the Transformation to obtain the desired change of the inputs to outputs is the “ENGINEERING” behind the activity or solution. Discerning the Output between the “What?” and “Why?” is the strategic thinking. Ensuring that the desired outputs are achieved by orderly integration – with respect to time, cost, resources and their efficient deployment – of the inputs to effect the transformation is the “Operational” aspect of the activity. Strategy and Operations are the two sides of anything we call as “MANAGEMENT”.

In this Systems thinking there are three levels, which relate to the three aspects described in in the blog post mentioned above

AWARENESS: analytical thinking mainly aims to review the data/information we are presented with (for relevance, patterns, trends etc.) — the ability to clarify the information on-hand and their assignment into the various aspects of the “System” as defined above. It also helps to identify the missing data or gaps and the questions to ask and in what order?

ANALYSIS: Lateral thinking aims to put data/information into a new or different context (in order to generate alternative answers or solutions) — answer the questions raised using the tools of Science, Engineering and Management in an interdisciplinary manner. Today such lateral thinking is part of higher education, but limited to the three disciplines, but mostly as impermeable silos!

SYNTHESIS: Critical thinking aims to make an overall or holistic judgment about the data/information which is as free from false premises or bias as much as possible — ability to answer the question ” 2 + 2 = ?” with an answer, “Why is this question raised in the first place” ? Then find answers which might lead to “2+2 = 3, 4, 5 or Fruit Salad”. In the last case it will be the sum of two fruits (Apple and Orange) with two other fruits (Peach and Banana) together with some ice cream on the side making the whole the Fruit Salad! Hence CRITICAL THINKING can be thought of as third level of SYSTEM THINKING, where the whole is seen as larger (or smaller, if that is the output of the “System”) than the mere sum of the parts. It is an ability to see the picture or pattern, rather than the mere emphasis on the pixels! For more details on System Thinking and the three levels:

Leadership: Three levels of System Skills

In a recent post in the HBR titled: Want to be an outstanding leader: Keep a journal? the author suggests keeping a personal journal and also taking time off for periodic reflection. We fully agree with these suggestions. Here are some additional thoughts:

A Leader evolves to be one by gathering ideas (Self and that from others), integrates them into a solution and leads a team to achieve and enjoy the benefits of such solution. Hence by inference every leader and in any field is a Knowledge Integrator, capable of thinking of problems or opportunities as a system: The Whole is larger than the mere sum of its parts.
There are three levels of System Thinking in any leadership role:
AWARENESS of the big picture (at this level any form of knowledge and information aggregation is very useful; Maintaining a personal diary or journal is one such tool; it offers a structure or discipline for knowledge aggregation.)
ANALYSIS: This is the next level of System Thinking for any leadership role. Some times this analysis of data and information is personal, some times it is collective. A good leader finds ways to push every one to this stage. Most will resist it as the tendency will be to just supply information and wait for orders. Such task oriented persons can never be a leader, no matter what their title or assigned role is.
Moments of peace and introspection are ways in which a leader separates himself from the mere tasks and engages in analytical reasoning that connect the dots, to see the big picture – how the whole can become larger than mere sum of the parts.
SYNTHESIS: Few, Very few ascend to this level. The synthesis is an outcome of analysis. While Analysis offers an answer to the “Why?”, synthesis challenges the leader to inspire the self and others to ask “Why not?” and then find the answers.
For details on the three levels of System Skills for a leader: