Systems Thinking

What ‘Systems Thinking’ Actually Means

What ‘systems thinking’ actually means – and why it matters for innovation today.

  • Systems thinking can help us grasp the interconnectedness of our world.
  • During the uncertainty of the pandemic, it can spur innovation.

We are currently living through VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) times.

As innovators, general professionals, key workers, citizens and humans, everything we do is ever more interdependent on each other. ‘No man is an island’ is a well-known phrase, yet in practice, how often do we understand the interconnectedness of everything around us? Enter systems thinking.

In some circles, there has been a lot of hype around taking an “ecosystems view” during this global pandemic, which frankly is not something new. Systems thinking has been an academic school of thought used in engineering, policy-making and more recently adapted by businesses to ensure their products and services are considering the ‘systems’ that they operate within.

Defining innovation

Every firm defines innovation in a different way. I enjoy using the four-quadrant model (see figure below) for simplicity: incremental innovation utilises your existing technology within your current market; architectural innovation is applying your technology in different markets; disruptive innovation involves applying new technology to current markets; and radical innovation displaces an entire business model.

During COVID-19, we are seeing a mixture of these. Many firms will start with incremental changes, adapting their products to a new period of uncertainty. With the right methodology and balance of internal and external capabilities, there is potential for radical and disruptive innovation that meets new needs, or fundamentally, creates new needs based on our current circumstances. Systems thinking is essential in untapping these types of innovation and ensuring they flourish long-term.

A dynamic duo

‘Systems thinking’ does not have one set toolkit but can vary across different disciplines, for example, in service design some may consider a ‘blueprint’ a high-level way to investigate one’s ‘systems of interest’. Crucially, this school of thought is even more powerful when combined with more common approaches, such as human-centered design (HCD).

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