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How to Make Difficult Problems Easier to Solve with Systems Thinking

How to Make Difficult Problems Easier to Solve with Systems Thinking
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Everything and every time we think, we are projecting our own view on reality. [1] Revolutionary Systems Thinker and professor at Cornell University Derek Cabrera remarked,

“When we understand the world as being the result of systems of relationships, we better approximate reality.”

I recently came across Derek’s book Systems Thinking Made Simple: New Hope for Solving Wicked Problems and I was hooked! I was immediately converted to the field of Systems Thinking. In fact, I plan on using Systems Thinking as my new algorithm for everything I do.

    After speaking with Derek, I decided to write an article that was similar to a book review, yet also a how-to. This article will focus on Derek’s new version of Systems Thinking (v2.0), how to use it, and some tools to use with it. So, let’s take a look at what Systems Thinking v2.0 is.

    The Best Way to Solve Wicked Problems

      If you had to think of the problem that underlies all other problems, what would you say it is? Derek informs us that it is the way we think and until we change the way we think, we will find it extremely difficult to tackle wicked problems. In fact, Albert Einstein would have probably agreed. Einstein once remarked,

      “Without changing our patterns of thought, we will not be able to solve the problems created with our current pattern of thought.”

      So, what are wicked problems?

      “Wicked problems result from a mismatch with how things work and how we think or perceive they work.” – Derek Cabrera

      Why Systems Thinking Is the Best Way To Innovate

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        Personally, Systems Thinking is my “aha” or epiphany generator. It is the best way to innovate. In fact, there are three ways to innovate.

        1. Invent something new.
        2. Make an existing product better.
        3. Combine two existing things into something new.

        Systems Thinking is also perfect for learning something in one domain and transferring it to another. Along with his wife Laura, Derek discusses how Systems Thinking uses what is called a Far Transfer. This is learning something in one domain and transferring it to another in order to teach yourself 5-20 additional things.

        Derek and Laura discovered Systems Thinking v2.0 after developing an equation. Yet, it was his wife Laura who helped him translate this into the real world. Laura is an expert in the field of Translational Research, which helps bring the abstract into reality. They then developed Systems Thinking v2.0 through four simple rules. However, let’s look at a couple of key concepts to understand before we discuss the four rules.

        The Foundation of Systems Thinking

        Mental Model

          “All mental models are wrong; the practical question is how wrong do they have to be to not be useful.” – George E.P. Boy

          This is the foundation of Systems Thinking. Derek informs us that a Mental Model is an explanation of someone’s thought process about how something works in the real world. Think back to our discussion on wicked problems. Wicked problems are present when our mental models are complex.

          Derek provides the following equation for Mental Models.

          Information + Structure = Mental Models

          • Information includes all material, information, or data of any kind that contribute to meaning.
          • Structure includes hidden contextual structure that contributes to meaning.

          Complex Adaptive System

            Complexity theory draws research from science that examines uncertainty and non-linearity. It emphasizes interactions and feedback loops that are continuously changing. This is why Systems Thinking must be a Complex Adaptive System (CAS). This provide us an understanding of a system and the system’s behavior.

            The Four Simple Rules of Systems Thinking

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              Let’s now discuss the four simple rules of Systems Thinking v2.0. These rules are known as DSRP, which represents four cognitive functions that we must have to form new ideas:

              • Distinctions
              • Systems
              • Relationships
              • Perspectives

              Distinctions

                Simply put, every idea starts with a distinct thing or idea. Let’s see how Derek describes Distinctions.

                • They are the key to solving wicked problems.
                • They identify what a thing or even a problem IS and what it IS NOT.
                • They serve as the boundary that define an idea.
                • The things we see and think about derive meaning from other proximate things or ideas.
                • Essentially, words mean what we want them to mean.
                • Key words: compare, contrast, define, differentiate.

                Systems

                  “A change in the way an idea is organized leads to a change in the meaning of the idea.” – Derek Cabrera

                  Similar to distinctions, every idea or thing is a system containing parts. Let’s take a look at how Derek describes Systems.

                  • Any idea or thing can be split into parts (deconstruction).
                  • Any idea or thing can be lumped into a whole (construction).
                  • A person who can do both (split and lump) is called a “Slumper”.
                  • Slumper’s are people who have the ability to both construct or synthesize ideas; additionally, they can deconstruct ideas to further our understanding.
                  • Key words: part-whole, chunking, grouping, organizing.

                  “What makes something a part is that it belongs to a whole. What makes something a whole is that it has a part. Every whole has the potential to also be a part. Your mind needs to do the work to see this. In the real world, whatever you are looking at has parts.” – Derek Cabrera

                  Relationships

                    Relationships consist of an action and reaction. Here is how Derek defines Relationships.

                    • We cannot understand much about a thing or idea without understanding the relationship between or among the ideas or systems.
                    • All types of relationships require that we consider two underlying elements: action and reaction.
                    • Key words: connect, interconnection, interaction, link, cause, effect, feedback.

                    Perspectives

                      “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” – Derek Cabrera

                      Let’s now take a look at the last rule – Perspectives. We typically identify perspectives when we are able to identify the boundaries of a system and determine the relationships in a system. Derek defines Perspectives by the following.

                      • Sometimes perspectives are so basic and so unconscious to us, we are unaware of them but they are always aware of us.
                      • Perspectives are made up of two related elements: a Point from which we are Viewing and the thing or things that are in View (Point-of-View).
                      • Being aware of the perspectives we take and do not take is paramount to deeply understanding ourselves and the world around us.
                      • Shift perspectives and we transform distinctions, relationships, and systems we do and do not see.
                      • Different perspectives result from changing the Point, the View, or Both.

                      “Perspectives can be used to make us expand our thinking and include more options (i.e. divergent thinking). It can also be used to restrict our thinking and cause greater focus (i.e. convergent thinking).” – Derek Cabrera

                      Fill in Gaps Through Systems Thinking

                        “Systems Thinking requires little more than practice in building cognitive building blocks. It is no different than building with different types of Legos, or the four different nucleotides in DNA.” – Derek Cabrera

                        Let’s look at how to use some of the tools in Systems Thinking v2.0. The first technique we will look at is called a Cognitive Jig. This is a powerful technique, one in which Derek informs us,

                        “Will increase our speed of thought.”

                        Types of Cognitive Jigs

                          • Analogy. An analogy is the comparison of two things demonstrating similarities. Derek informs us,

                          “The genius behind the invention of analogies was that they gave us a mental model of a common way we understand things (i.e. by comparison to a known thing).”

                          • Metaphor. A metaphor is used when we need to make a comparison between two things that are not alike, yet have something in common.

                          New Cognitive Jigs

                            • Perspective Circles (P-Circle). P-Circles change the point (a) or the view (b) which changes the perspective. Another way to look at it is from an idea (b) from the perspective of an idea (a).
                            • Part-Parties. They demonstrate a whole made up of parts. The basic idea is: 1) Break an idea or thing into parts; 2) Relate the parts. These can then be extended further by including perspective.
                            • Barbells. You can look at Barbells as two ideas or things and the relationship between them. Expanded further, we find what is called an RDS Barbell, where: R = Relate; D = Distinguish; and S = Systematize. Derek calls these “algorithms for innovation.” He uses RDS Barbells in solving wicked problems as complexity is hidden in the interrelationship between ideas.

                            Tools to Help You Adapt Systems Thinking

                            Lastly, let’s take a brief look at some of the tools Derek and Laura have created to assist us in understanding and using Systems Thinking v2.0.

                            MetaMap. This platform was created to help us understand exactly how to map our thinking process using DSRP. You can even use it to map an outline to an essay! Best of all, this platform is free to use, you can try it out here: MetaMap

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                              ThinkBlocks. These are 3D dry erase blocks that anyone of any age can use.

                                ThinkQuiry. This website uses what Derek refers to as “MadLib” style DSRP questions. These can be useful in helping us use the structure of DSRP to discover new ideas. It utilizes the Socratic Method and focuses on the questions more than the answers. Start to discover new ideas on ThinkQuiry.

                                  If you can’t tell already, I highly recommend purchasing Systems Thinking Made Simple: New Hope for Solving Wicked Problems. Derek provides us a way to literally generate new and amazing ideas. There are an infinite number of thoughts in our mind, and an infinite number of systems we can use to explore our thoughts. Systems Thinking v2.0 provides us a powerful way to explore our thoughts.

                                  Furthermore, Derek places everyone on a Consciousness and Competence Continuum. He describes the continuum as:

                                    1. We begin at the unconscious incompetence stage (we don’t know what we don’t know).
                                    2. If we are lucky, someone wakes us up and causes us to search for something more. We then move into the conscious incompetence stage, where we realize we have something we need to learn.
                                    3. Once we develop some competence, we then move into the unconscious competence stage. Here we practice a skill without being fully aware of the skill. There is some cognition, just not metacognition (thinking about thinking or cognition about cognition).
                                    4. When we finally move into the conscious-competence stage, we become aware of what we are doing so that we can adapt to where we need to be.

                                    Successfully progressing along the continuum means we have an increase in our metacognitive awareness, which is extremely important as everything we experience is an ever-changing mental model.

                                    Derek’s vision for Systems Thinking v2.0 is to develop 7 Billion Systems Thinkers! Let me end this article with three questions. These are the same questions Derek used to develop his vision and you can use it to develop yours.

                                    • Question #1: What pisses you off the most?
                                    • Question #2: What do you see today?
                                    • Question #3: What should you see tomorrow?

                                    Featured photo credit: Meduana, unsplash via unsplash.com

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                                    Reference

                                    [1] Derek Cabrera: Systems Thinking Made Simple

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                                    Last Updated on July 21, 2021

                                    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

                                    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)
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                                    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

                                    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

                                    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

                                    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

                                    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

                                    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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                                    From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

                                    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

                                    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

                                    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

                                    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

                                    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

                                    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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                                    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

                                    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

                                    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

                                    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

                                    The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

                                    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

                                    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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                                    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

                                    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

                                    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

                                    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

                                    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

                                    How to Make a Reminder Works for You

                                    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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                                    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

                                    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

                                    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

                                    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

                                    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

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                                    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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                                    Reference

                                    [1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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