The Art of Thinking In Systems: Summary and Notes

the art of thinking in systems

“System thinking is being able to examine and analyze ourselves and things around us with the express purpose of being able to improve upon them”

Rating: 6/10

Related: Thinking in Systems: A Primer, The Great Mental Models: General Thinking Concepts, The Elements of Thinking in Systems

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The Art of Thinking In Systems Short Summary

The Art of Thinking In Systems by Steven Schuster is a book that introduces a new way of thinking called “system thinking”. Systems are physical and abstract things that react in relation to one another. With system thinking, you can analyze things around you with the sole purpose of improving yourself. The negative point is that it falls short of diving deeper into the topic of system thinking.

What Are Systems?

A system is anything that has interacting and interconnected parts.

The human body is an example of a system. It reacts to the environment and is composed of many interdependent parts such as the brain, digestive, and circulatory systems.

What Is System Thinking?

“Systems thinking is the art and science of making reliable inferences about behavior by developing an increasingly deep understanding of underlying structure.”

System thinking takes into account the interconnectedness of things as opposed to looking at things as being independent of each other. In other words, it puts a focus on the relationship between the different parts of the whole. 

With system thinking, it’s easier to deal with complex problems because system thinking asks that you look at the bigger picture first.

Compared to traditional forms of thinking, system thinking represents a paradigm shift. 

“It is impossible to know the behavior of a system just by knowing the parts that make up that system.”

The Elements of System Thinking

Systems are made up of three parts: elements, interconnections, and a function or purpose. 

Elements are the actors in the system.

For example:

In the human circulatory system, the actors include blood cells, the heart, arteries, veins, and lungs.

Interconnections are the different relationships between the elements. In our example of the circulatory system, the relationship between the lungs and the heart is that the lungs supply oxygenated blood to the heart.

Function or purpose is what the system delivers. The circulatory system delivers oxygenated blood to the body. That’s its purpose or function. 

Anything without interconnections or purpose cannot be considered a system. Systems can be changed if the purpose or the interconnections between the different parts is changed. 

Types of Thinking

There are different types of thinking. System thinking is just one of them.

  • Linear Thinking. This involves looking for a cause and effect. It is a one-to-one solution that tells us that there is a beginning and an end to everything
  • Event Oriented Thinking. This kind of thinking assumes that life is made up of a series of events and that if we change the cause, then we can change the event. Human brains like event-oriented thinking
  • Lateral Thinking. This is creative thinking that trains the brain to subconsciously think in a certain way. Lateral thinking was invented by Edward De Bono in 1967
  • Critical Thinking. In critical thinking, facts are analyzed in an objective way so that judgment can be reached
  • System Thinking. The study and analysis of systems

Levels of System Maturity:

  1. Level 0 – Unawareness. At this level, you are completely unaware of the system thinking concept
  2. Level 1 – Shallow Awareness. At this level, you are aware of system thinking but do not show any depth of understanding
  3. Level 2- Deep Awareness. At this level, you are aware of the key concepts of system thinking and the potential of system thinking.
  4. Level 3 – Novice.  A novice is a person who can create their own system diagrams and be able to solve easy to moderate problems using system thinking
  5. Level 4 – Expert. An expert in system thinking can use system dynamics to create their own simulation models
  6. Level 5 – Guru. Gurus can teach other people to become experts in system thinking

How To Shift From Linear Thinking Patterns to System Thinking

The first step in shifting from linear thinking to system thinking is to ask if something is actually the problem or a symptom of something deeper. 

Linear thinking focuses on solving a problem while system thinking digs deeper to see if systematic issues exist.

To determine if an issue is part of a larger problem:

  1. Check the amount of time and energy devoted to solving it. If you are spending more time and energy than is needed, you are likely dealing with a symptom rather than the real issue
  2. When people with power to solve the issue ignore it, and would rather spend their time complaining, chances are you are dealing with a symptom of a larger problem  
  3. If you have tried to solve the issue repeatedly but are not seeing results, or if it changes to a related issue, you have not uncovered the real problem yet
  4. If there is an emotional barrier that stands between you and the solution it is a sign of systematic problems
  5. When the problem that you are trying to solve is predictable or seems so, there is a high probability that it is a system of something more
  6. If the problem is kept around by an organization, it is just a distraction from the real problem
  7. When an organization is stressed out and always anxious, it suggests that it is only focusing on symptoms and not the real problems
  8. If whenever you solve one problem another appears, it’s a sign of deeper issues that need to be addressed

Ten Enemies of System Thinking:

  1. Let’s fix it quick. Jumping into solutions without fully understanding the problem will always result in more problems
  2. Put a band-aid on it.  Temporary solutions mask symptoms while the infection spreads across the organization
  3. Budgeting. Budgeting makes people think in terms of fixed deadlines and cause and effect
  4. Responding right away. Trying to find solutions immediately makes people think in linear ways
  5. Who cares? Being apathetic is a sign that the organization is not willing to engage in systematic thinking
  6. We need more information. While there is nothing wrong with needing more information, data alone will not solve the problem. Someone must be willing to act on the information
  7. “You are overthinking things”. When you are accused of overthinking, it shows that the other person is not willing to engage your point of view
  8.  “Forget everyone else”. Win-lose situations are a sign of linear thinking
  9. “We don’t want conflict”. Systematic thinking goes for the root of the problem even if it involves hurting others
  10. “We will do it this way”. Insisting on one way over another is a sign of linear thinking

Understanding System Behaviour

System behavior can be understood in terms of stocks, flows, and feedback loops.

Stocks serve as the base of every system.

“Stocks are sorts of snapshots in time, showing a current view of the changing flows in the system.”

They may be physical like money but they may also be feelings and attitudes. Stocks are not static. The changing nature of stocks keeps the system alive.

Flows are actions that impact the system. Examples of flows include deposits, sales, and inventories. Flows are what get in and out of the system.

For example:

In an organization, the hiring and retirement of employees is a flow in the system. 

Feedback loops are mechanisms that work to control and create behavior.

“A feedback loop is created when changes in the level of a stock affect the inflows or outflows of that stock.”

Feedback loops keep the stock level at a certain range or allow it to increase or decrease. 

A reinforcing loop strengthens existing connections within the system while a balancing loop maintains balance within system subunits.

Systems Errors 

When behavior patterns of a system are stuck in time, change can be difficult and you get policy resistance

“Policy resistance arises when the goals of the subsystems do not match. “

When the goals are inconsistent, they end up competing with each other. The system ends up being pulled in multiple directions.

For example:

When the communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu decided that Romania needed to increase its population and banned abortion and contraception, there was an increase in maternal death. More women simply took dangerous unregulated abortion procedures.

The most successful way of overcoming policy resistance is by uniting the goals of the various subsystems. People are willing to put their differences aside and find common ground on any number of issues.

Falling Systems

Systems can be stuck in a negative loop that risks killing off the entire system. This happens when there is an erosion of goals and expectations.

One way to fight the negative loop is to maintain absolute standards no matter what happens to performance.  The second way is to set performance standards that mirror the best performances from the past.


“In terms of systems, escalation is a reinforcing loop that is created when actors try to compete to get ahead of one another.”

Escalation is connected to achieving a positive goal. But when escalation erodes relationships within systems, it is not a good thing.

For example:

When businesses try to compete by lowering their price, it can lead to a dangerous escalation where everyone loses.

Why Do the Rich Get Richer?

Winning creates a powerful feedback loop that reinforces gains that have already been achieved.

For example:

Teams that win championships receive more TV revenues and showtime. As a result, they get more fans and even more money. This allows them to buy the best players and keep winning.

The competitive exclusion principle: It is impossible to have two species living in the same ecological niche surviving on the same resources. One will be forced out.

The competitive exclusion principle explains why governments are required to intervene in markets because, without such interventions, monopolies would dominate the market.

System Thinking in Relationships

Human relationships can be thought of in terms of system thinking.

The four communications styles that end relationships:

  • Criticism. Criticism will leave your partner feeling attacked and rejected
  • Contempt. Communicating with contempt leaves the other person feeling unloved and unappreciated
  • Defensiveness. When we get defensive, the other party sees it as a dismissal of their concerns
  • Stonewalling. Stonewalling is shutting oneself from the other. It is a refusal to engage

By applying system thinking to relationship problems you will be able to take your power back and feel hopeful.

“Thinking of our relationship as a system and stock means that both partners are feedback loops. We look for any changes that may have happened recently and analyze whether the system dynamics have changed.”

One way is to recognize that things run on three different categories: physical, mental, and emotional. Solutions to relationship problems can be found in any of these areas.