Solving Complex Problems with the 11 Laws of Systems Thinking

Systems thinking is the key to solving complex problems and achieving simplicity. Furthermore, by applying systems thinking to different situations, we also start to recognize the existence of universal patterns of behavior in business and in life. In so doing, we develop good judgment, prudence, patience, sense of opportunity, and a whole array of other virtues and strength that are critical to success.

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Peter Senge, in his book The Fifth Discipline, provided his own version of the aforementioned universal patterns of behavior. He called them The 11 Laws of Systems Thinking. Below, you will find each law with a brief explanation based on my experience as a consultant, coach, and researcher.

1) Today’s problems come from yesterday’s “solutions.”

Today’s problems, interestingly enough, are caused in part by the solutions we implemented to solve yesterday’s problems. For example, today’s industrial production of food helps feed millions who otherwise would go hungry; however, the use of preservatives, colorants, and nitrates in industrial food production poses unprecedented health hazards. Since most solutions are not definitive, the key to success lies in our ability to reframe reality and change our behavior on a regular basis.

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

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Implementing change takes effort. When someone recommends or imposes changes on the way we do things, most of us respond with resistance in the form of either active aggression (criticism, confrontation, etc.) or passive aggression (indifference, evasion, etc.). Only when the necessary explanations and incentives are provided, we will be open to changing our ways. This process generally takes time, so patience, commitment, and humility must be part of the equation.

3) Behavior will grow better before it grows worse

In most cases, people create new problems unknowingly. This means that while we may be performing well at whatever we do, we may also be sowing the seeds of future problems. So, when such spoiled seeds come to fruition, we are faced with an unexpected problem that seems to contradict how well things were previously going.

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4) The easy way out usually leads back in

Achieving simplicity is very different from being simplistic. Simplicity is the product of hard work while being simplistic is the avoidance of hard work in a naïve attempt to achieve simplicity by chance. Therefore, simplicity leads to success while being simplistic most often leads to failure.

5) The cure can be worse than the disease

By being anxious and simplistic, we will most likely make decisions that will undermine the situation at hand, thus making it worse. By implementing the wrong solutions today, tomorrow’s problems may dwarf those of today.

6) Faster is slower

Being simplistic is the illusion of having achieved simplicity without the proper understanding. So, by being simplistic, we advance more slowly—or not at all—as a result of wanting to advance faster.

7) Cause and effect are not closely related in time and space

Most problems find their roots way back in the past and in some unsuspected part of the system that they affect. A recurring migraine may find its cause in bad posture habits going on for years. Political instability in some Latin American countries may find some of its roots in power struggles between Western and Eastern super powers. Whether we are dealing with a human body or the whole world, internal components affect each other across time and space in dynamic ways. Detailed observation and analysis are required to understand them properly.

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

As explained in my book The Seventh Distinction, the solution to a problem usually lies in a few factors called leverage factors. However, the higher the complexity of the problem at hand, the deeper the leverage factors get buried underneath superficial patterns that may be very misleading.

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

You can put your cake in the fridge and save it for later. Yet, if you eat your cake, it will no longer be in the fridge for a later feast. This is a perfect analogy for the use of money, time, and effort. If you purchase a car, the money you spent on it will no longer be available for investment in other initiatives. If you spend time solving one problem, that same time cannot be used to solve another problem. The moral of this law is, of course, to think and act strategically—to prioritize.

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

Fragmenting a big problem into smaller, more manageable ones is the first step in solving it. However, we need to consider how the solution to one of the small problems will affect the solution to all the others. We must not forget that small problems are always interconnected in ways that define big problems.

11) There is no blame

If you realize there is a problem and refuse to participate in its solution, you will become an accomplice to said problem from that point forward—even if you did not cause it initially. If, in addition to refusing to participate in the problem’s solution, you choose to blame others as the ideal excuse not to get involved, the situation will certainly worsen. Further, if everyone chooses to behave in the same way, the problem will become chronic and cause additional complications. The key to breaking this vicious cycle is to take responsibility for solving the problem; even if you did not cause it. This is the path of no blame.

Whenever we find ourselves stuck in a problem with no visible solution, it helps to ask ourselves which of the 11 Laws we are ignoring or trying to break. The answer will bring a great deal of simplicity to what seemed unsolvable.

What do you think?

Now, it is your turn. What do you think about Senge’s 11 Laws? Which Law do you find to be the most insightful? Which Law do you think people break more often and why?