Systems Theory

Before discussing natural systems such as humans and plants and animals we need to understand systems. A system is composed of interrelated parts or components that cooperate in some way. Natural systems include biological entities like humans, oceans, the climate, the solar system and ecosystems. Systems that have been artificially created include cars, software systems, government organizations and business systems. Systems Thinking is the process of understanding how systems behave, interact with their environment and influence each other. Systems thinking is based on the belief that the component parts of a system can best be understood by analyzing them within the context of their relationship with each other and the system within which they operate as opposed to attempting to analyze each system in isolation. 

Your human body is a system. There are other systems inside of you. There are a large systems such as organs. Organs are made of smaller systems that consist of certain types of cells. Each cell is made up of even smaller systems known as compounds or molecules. Molecules are a system made up of a combination of atoms. Each atom contains its own system that, in very basic terms, resembles an extremely tiny solar system where there is a nucleus in the middle and other subatomic particles circulating around the nucleus.

We can also identify systems in the opposite direction. The system that is your body exists within a bigger systems that include your immediate environment, the global environment and ultimately the universe. For the purpose of this book we will refer to the universe as the “ultimate system” and the words universe and “ultimate system” will be used interchangeably. 

This systems thinking approach clearly describes how and why the universe is in fact one organism and why it is literally correct to say that we are all one as opposed to using this expression in some kind of metaphoric sense. 

We often hear the expression “the answers lie within us” or “inside us”. This would be true if we lived in a vacuum but we don’t. We are system that operates within a bigger system. Therefore, the expression “the answers lie within us” can only be partially true. Only some of the answers lie within us. The totality of answers lie both within us and outside of us. 

Another consequence of understanding that we are part of one “integrated system” is that loving ourselves means, by extension, loving the systems that sustain us – not because they are a separate thing that “helps us out” or can be exploited when necessary but because, at a much more fundamental level, it is just another part of us. 

The literal and overly simplified answer to the question, how do you fit into the big picture, is that you are a system that exists within the ultimate system (nature or the universe). As mentioned earlier, you are also made up of numerous smaller systems, therefore, you exist somewhere in the middle of this system of systems. The reason we think of ourselves as being in the middle is because our frame of reference is us. We don’t really know where the edge of big things lies and we don’t really know where the edge of small things lies. As far as absolute measurements (as opposed to relative measurements) are concerned we are obviously much closer to the size of a subatomic particle then we are to the size of the universe and therefore perhaps we are not in the middle of the system of systems but in fact are located somewhere toward the very small end of the range.

If you are a system operating within another system and there are also numerous other systems operating within you and all of these systems are reliant on each other, you can use this systems thinking approach to analyzing various situations and scenarios with a more holistic view. For example, if you are an inventor of a physical thing, a project or the founder of a new business you are essentially inventing a new system. It will be made up of smaller systems and it will also need to operate within much larger systems. It helps to understand how your new invented system will interact with the systems inside of it and outside of it. 

Systems thinking is not intended to be a methodology that tells you everything you need to know about your new invented systems. It is one of numerous approaches that can be used to reveal strengths and weaknesses about your system and all of this information can be combined other forms of analysis to allow you to hone in on a better understanding of what you’re dealing with and make better decisions as a result of it all. 

Systems thinking is particularly important when trying to establish projects and goals for the purposes of having maximum positive impact. The systems thinking approach to MPI is required because it helps you understand how your project will affect other people and entities outside of the project as well as those people inside of the project. It’s not physically possible to execute a project that will result in MPI if the project was not established within the context of a holistic view. The best way to complete a holistic analysis of a project is by using some form of systems thinking or systems analysis.

As a result of all of us being products of nature and operating within nature, the concept of equilibrium (and, in many cases, the actual laws of equilibrium) will apply. The concept of equilibrium tells us that the components of any system will interact with each other in a way that eventually results in some form of status quo – or equilibrium. Therefore, the project that you pursue and the decisions that you make will impact other people, organizations, physical things and the environment. This will result in a reaction of some kind and this will be followed by a reaction to the reaction and this back-and-forth of reactions will continue until all of the interacting components settle upon a state of equilibrium. 

When applying systems thinking. It can be helpful to consider the following:

  • Interdependence of the components of each system. How dependent or independent is the whole system on one or more components? How dependent or independent is one component on another component?
  • Holism – take a holistic approach to the analysis
  • Goal seeking – systemic integration, interaction and analysis be driven by, or conducted within the context of, an objective or goal. 

Next article in this series: “Natural Systems & Complexity”

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