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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

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 17, 2019

                                    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

                                    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

                                    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

                                    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

                                    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

                                    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

                                    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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                                    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

                                    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

                                    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

                                    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

                                    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

                                    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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                                    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

                                    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

                                    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

                                    The Neurology of Ownership

                                    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

                                    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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                                    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

                                    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

                                    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

                                    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

                                    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

                                    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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                                    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

                                    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

                                    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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                                    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

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