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The 11 laws of systems thinking

When thinking about systems, specifically how to work with change and its consequences, Peter Senge outlines 11 Laws of Systems Thinking:

1. Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions 

2. The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back 

3. Behaviour grows better before it grows worse

4. The easy way out leads back in 

5. The cure can be worse than the disease

6. Faster is slower 

7. Cause and effect are not always closely related in time and space

8. Small changes can produce big results – but the areas of highest leverage are often the least obvious

9. You can have your cake and eat it too but not all at once

10. Dividing an elephant in half does not produce two small elephants

11. There is no blame

Let’s understand a little more about these 11 Laws by applying them.

As you watch this video imagine one of the systems in which you work and do the following exercise:

Imagine a particular challenge that happened in your system, recall what happened and how the system reacted 

Pause the video between each of the laws and note down any insights it gives on how your system is working

Transcript

One. Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions. We don’t always think about intended or unintended consequences so that our solutions often create new problems.

Two. The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back. When things are not going to plan how often do we persist rather than taking time to think through alternatives? Give yourselves time to think a way through the system.

Three. Behaviour grows better before it grows worse. Short term solutions help at first, but if they do not address the underlying problem, it makes the situation worse in the long run.

Four. The easy way out leads back in. We frequently go for the quick fix stored in our memories rather than recognising the differences between then and now. So the quick fix will ultimately fail.

Five. The cure can be worse than the disease. The easy and familiar, maybe ineffective, adding to the problem. A pet solution can be addictive and counterproductive.

Six. Faster is slower. With pressures on time, it is tempting to advance at full speed without caution. The optimal rate of growth or change is far slower than what may be technically possible.

Seven. Cause and effect are not always closely related in time and space. We are good at finding causes even when disguised as symptoms rather than look anew for the root cause.

Eight. Small changes can produce big results, but the areas of highest leverage are often the least obvious. The grand solutions, such as changing organisation policy, vision or branding seldom work for transformative change. Small, ordinary, but consistent and repetitive changes can make a huge difference.

Nine. You can have your cake and eat it too, but not all at once. It’s not either versus or. Change your perspective of the system and allow time for solutions to work.

Ten. Dividing an elephant in half does not produce two small elephants. As a leader fail to see the wider system connections at your peril. It can lead to poor decisions, repeated tasks, lost time and energy.

Eleven. There is no blame. When we are using group intelligence understanding that even the simplest of systems is complex. We realise that we and the cause of events, situations, problems, errors and mistakes are part of the system.

What does your immediate system look like? How does it relate and connect beyond boundaries? Draw your own systems map and note the interconnectivity that is revealed, how would Senge’s systems thinking laws work within that system?