!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-strict.dtd"> Streamline Training & Documentation: Systems Thinking Skills

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Systems Thinking Skills

In 1993, Barry Richmond (pdf), a one-time engineering professor at Dartmouth College and then head of his own software development company before his untimely death at 55, published an article on systems thinking skills that holds up well some 15 years later.

"Systems Thinking: Critical Thinking Skills for the 1990s and Beyond" describes seven skills, with examples, that a person must develop in order to be adept at systems thinking:
  • Dynamic thinking — "the ability to see and deduce behavior patterns rather than focusing on, and seeking to predict, events."

  • Closed-loop thinking — Seeing "the world as a set of ongoing, interdependent processes rather than as a laundry list of one-way relations between a group of factors and a phenomenon that these factors are causing." Richmond notes, "Making the system itself the cause of its behaviors, rather than a set of external forces places the burden of improving performance on relations that those within the system can manage." Businesspeople, take heed.

  • Generic thinking — Instead of viewing every situation as a special case, look for "the similarities in the underlying feedback-loop relations that generate" a phenomenon such as a business cycle.

  • Structural thinking — Instead of depending on causal loops to represent dynamic processes, use structural diagrams, which allow more accurate representation of cause-and-effect.

  • Operational thinking — "[T]hinking in terms of how things really work — not how they theoretically work." Operational thinking is important because it enables thinking "more effectively about what the real levers are for managing the process" you're analyzing.

  • Continuum thinking — Important for avoiding either/or, us vs. them thinking. Instead of dealing only with extremes, one should allow for a range of possibilities. Richmond notes, "The development of continuum thinking capability is closely related to the development of generic thinking skills. Both emphasize the ability to recognize the familiar in what appears diverse or distinct. It's the ability to see connections and interdependencies rather than sharp boundaries and disconnections."

  • Scientific thinking — Thinking that enables clear analysis of variables, including variables that do not lend themselves to precise measurement, and that centers on testing explicit hypotheses about cause and effect.
Richmond recognizes that trying to teach all seven of these systems thinking skills simultaneously is unlikely to be effective. Instead, he recommends giving separate attention to development of each skill:
We've found that explicitly separating these seven tracks, then attending to skill development in each, greatly increases learning productivity.
Furthermore ...
By viewing systems thinking within the broader context of critical thinking skills, and by recognizing the multidimensional nature of the thinking skills involved in systems thinking, we can greatly reduce the time it takes for people to apprehend this framework.
If Richmond's article piques your interest, you can learn more about his systems analysis software at the website of isee systems, the successor to the company he founded in 1984.


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