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Last Updated on January 17, 2018

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 January 2, 2019

                                    Better Alternatives to New Year’s Resolutions to Reduce Your Stress

                                    Better Alternatives to New Year’s Resolutions to Reduce Your Stress

                                    The end of the year is the time when everyone tries to give you advice on how to live healthier, look better, and earn more money.

                                    It’s understandable if you find yourself lost among all the tips and opinions. Sometimes you no longer know what you truly want to achieve next year – and what’s just imposed by society.

                                    To help you out, we’ve made this article about the things you should remove from your new year’s resolution list – instead of adding to it – to make your daily life more harmonious and peaceful.

                                    So just make sure you cross these off your New Year’s to-do list – your body, mind and soul will be thankful.

                                    1. Stop Buying Meaningless Gifts

                                    We all know the sense of obligation – when we have to buy a gift for an event or celebration that’s already tomorrow, but we still have no idea of what to give.

                                    Take these tips close to heart for all upcoming holidays, including birthdays, weddings, graduations, etc.:

                                    Stop focusing on the material objects

                                    Instead of focusing on what material object to give, think about the emotion you want to evoke[1] in the gift recipient, and then pick a symbolic gift that can support or represent that emotion. For example, you can gift coziness by presenting a “comfort set” with warm socks, tea, candles, etc. Or give motivation by presenting a beautiful planner or notebook.

                                    Plan gifts in advance

                                    We know this is easier said than done. But if you try to plan which gifts you’ll need in the upcoming months (try making a list three or four times a year), ideas will more likely come to mind and you’ll avoid that last-minute shopping. Not to mention, you’ll be able to keep an eye on sales to get the best prices.

                                    Suggest a better way

                                    If you’re tired of exchanging gifts for birthdays and holidays, initiate a different approach. For example, draw names among family members and agree that each one only buys a present to that one person they got. Alternatively, you can agree not to share gifts among adults, and only give presents to kids of the family. Or, ask friends to donate to charity instead of buying a gift for you.

                                    Go for common experiences instead of exchanging gifts

                                    You can agree (with your partner or the extended family) to go on a common trip, dinner or another activity, instead of spending money on gifts.

                                    Sometimes you’ll have to be the one who initiates breaking the rules that have been accepted in the family for years. But if you suspect that you’re not the only one in the group who’s tired of gift-hunting, you’ll surely find support for your suggestions.

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                                    2. Don’t Exaggerate with Diets and Fitness Resolutions

                                    It’s no secret that TV shows, article headlines, and ads (not to mention our healthy diet-obsessed friends) make us feel like we need to look better, slimmer and younger than we actually are. But going on yet another diet or starting a fitness plan with the wrong motivation rarely leads to great results.

                                    If you are like many people, you have probably signed up for an annual gym membership at least once in your life – only to drop it one month later.

                                    How do you balance a good resolution for a healthier life without pushing yourself into commitments that won’t last?

                                    Here’s what you can do:

                                    Set a healthier pattern

                                    For example, do meat-free Mondays or reduce meat consumption to three days per week (less saturated fat for you and better for the environment). Or choose to eat only healthy food at least three days a week or only on weekdays (e.g. make sure your meals contain vegetables, fruits, whole grains, dairy products, and protein). This way you’ll already have a healthier diet while still being able to treat yourself with a snack on weekends or parties.

                                    Get a fitness watch

                                    Fitness watches like Fitbit or MiBand are tiny accessories that will count your steps, calories burnt and will serve as an excellent motivator to move – or to take the stairs instead of the elevator.

                                    Find a physical activity that you enjoy

                                    Even if you are not that fond of doing sports, you can definitely find an activity that you’d do with pleasure. Think about what you’d like – from taking up Nordic walking to pilates or even exercising at home.

                                    Try intermittent fasting

                                    This is an alternating cycles of fasting and eating. For example, stop eating at 8 pm and restart not sooner than 12 hours later. This approach has been proven to have numerous health benefits, in addition to weight loss.

                                    Skip cabs or driving to work and opt for cycling or walking instead

                                    You’ll burn calories, breathe some fresh air, and save money – win-win!

                                    3. Put a Cap on Your Daily To-Do List

                                    In today’s busy world, planning your day in a stress-free way is actually an art in itself. It’s natural to want to be a loving parent, a diligent employee, an active member of the local community and probably several other individual roles.

                                    But playing all these roles requires energy and meticulous planning. How not to lose yourself amidst all the appointments and responsibilities? And – most importantly – how to still find time for relaxing and recharging yourself?

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                                    These daily planning tips will help you have more stress-free days:

                                    Leave bigger intervals between meetings

                                    If you schedule too many appointments or chores in a day, you’ll probably end up late at some point, and as a result – more stressed. There are many different reasons why people are late, but poor planning is a major factor too.

                                    Plan time to relax

                                    As weird as it may sound, you should try and schedule your resting time. For example, if you only have one free evening this week, and a friend tries to squeeze in a meeting, feel free to say no. Don’t feel obliged to specify the reason for your refusal, just say that you are busy.

                                    Try to be a little pessimistic

                                    We’re often packed with plans or running late for errands because we tend to be overly optimistic – about the traffic, the time it takes to do things, etc. Instead, try an opposite tactic — assume you’ll hit traffic or the meeting will take longer.

                                    Try waking up earlier

                                    Sometimes even waking up 30 minutes earlier can give you the much-needed head start for several errands of the day. But remember to get enough sleep every night, even if it means going to bed earlier.

                                    Plan your day the day before

                                    Chances are your day will be much better organized if you pack a lunch and lay out an outfit before going to bed.

                                    Designate a time for checking emails and social messages

                                    If you start checking your messages between appointments, you risk getting lost in a sea of messages that need replies. Designate a time for this activity or do it in case you arrived early to a meeting.

                                    4. Let Go of Unhealthy and Time-Consuming Habits

                                    If there’s one thing we should get rid of in the new year, it’s the habits that steal our time, provide instant gratification but don’t offer any value in the long term. Or even worse, leave a negative impact on our health.

                                    Here are some common (and pointless) habits along with tips on how to get rid of them:

                                    Binge-watching TV series

                                    Even if most online television platforms offer you lists of “Best TV Shows to Binge Watch”, being addicted to series is a major time-waster.

                                    You can manage this addiction in several ways, for example, watch one episode per day (or a few per week) as a reward, only after you’ve finished an assignment or done a house chore. Or try replacing this habit with exercise or reading a book – this will be hard at first but should stick after a few weeks. You can also try to track how much time you spend on TV or movies – seeing how much of your life you are wasting might urge you to do something about it.

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                                    Running on coffee

                                    Being a coffee addict is kind of a stylish addiction nowadays, but it’s not that innocent as it may initially seem. Besides addiction being a problem in itself, drinking too much coffee (more than 500-600 mg of caffeine a day) may lead to nervousness, insomnia, an upset stomach, a fast heartbeat, and even muscle tremors.[2]

                                    As a solution, try switching to tea or edible coffee – a more sustainable, healthy, and productivity-enhancing alternative. For example, Coffee Pixels are solid coffee bars that generate a more even energy kick throughout the day without the coffee-induced abstinence and dehydration.

                                    Procrastination

                                    Fighting procrastination requires some serious willpower. If it is a problem in your daily life or work, try ”eating the frog” in the morning – get over your biggest or hardest tasks first, then tackle everything else.

                                    Alternatively, use time tracking software to monitor exactly how much time you waste on unproductive actions, websites or apps. Once you know exactly how much time you’re spending unproductively, try to limit your time on social media, for example to just 20 minutes per day.

                                    If nothing else works, try bribing yourself — promise yourself to do something fun or pleasant when you finish your assignment.

                                    Whichever habit you want to give up, consider using some habits building tools to make a contract with yourself and reward yourself for milestones achieved.

                                    5. Stop over-consuming

                                    We live in the age of consumerism – huge manufacturers with their promise of a comfortable life on the one hand, and growing environmental threats – that are the direct result of our modern lifestyle – on the other hand. There’s only one solution – try to consume less whenever and wherever you can.

                                    Before making additional purchases, ask yourself these questions:

                                    • Do I really need it? Did I need it yesterday?
                                    • Can’t I buy it used or borrow it from friends?
                                    • Can I rent it?
                                    • Can I make it myself?
                                    • Am I buying the most sustainable version of this product?

                                    For example, check if the brand you chose is conscious about the environment, for example, are the products they manufacture energy efficient? Do they try to use less packaging?

                                    Also, if you often find yourself buying too many groceries, promise to buy only the amount that fits in one shopping bag (that you bring along). If you often forget to take your shopping bag with you, get yourself a 2-in-1 wallet with a built-in shopping bag for more eco-friendly shopping.

                                    6. Learn to Unplug from Your Phone

                                    Today’s world is crammed with information, and many people struggle to keep focus on what’s truly important. There’s just too much going on in the world – too much to read, to watch, to know, too many conversations to participate in.

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                                    But how to refuse the temptation to check the phone and start using social media in a controlled, not a compulsive way?

                                    Some tips for managing your phone-dependency:

                                    Spend only a limited amount of battery per day

                                    For example, start your day with 50% battery life, and manage your phone usage so that you’ll make it till the evening.

                                    Block distracting apps and notifications on your phone and computer

                                    Choose one-hour, two-hour or longer blocking sessions and enjoy the positive impact this will have on your mood and productivity.[3]

                                    Set your phone on flight mode

                                    When you start doing an important task that requires full focus, set your phone on flight mode so that nobody can disturb you.

                                    Leave your phone at home or in the office when you go for lunch

                                    You’ll see that the feeling of being unreachable for a moment is actually very liberating.

                                    The Bottom Line

                                    As a new year begins, we’re all excitedly looking forward to what adventures await ahead of us.

                                    But this year, promise yourself this:

                                    Instead of having a never-ending list of tasks and commitments, focus on the truly meaningful ones. And cross-out all the rest without feeling guilty.

                                    Less is more. Make this year count. We’re all rooting for you.

                                    Featured photo credit: Brooke Lark via unsplash.com

                                    Reference

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