Systems Thinking in Business Analysis: Why It Counts

Thinking is a force of habit that determines how we see the world. Very rarely do most people sit down to assess how they think. I remember when I was first introduced to the concept of systems thinking. What struck me most is how powerful it really is; it’s a different way of looking at the world. The field of systems thinking is so intriguing and vast that its application should not be limited to the analyst’s work life. It can also be applied to personal encounters that require finding solutions to everyday problems.

As business analysts, we may encounter complex human activity systems where the rules of logic do not serve us well. In such situations, having an alternative thinking framework such as “System thinking” to draw on can provide the missing insights.

Systems thinking can be described as “trying to understand reality by examining the relationship amongst the parts of the whole and the relationship of the parts to the whole instead of examining only the parts”. I'll elaborate.

The Inadequacies of thinking the “normal” way

Systems thinking is a direct solution to the inadequacies of linear and analytical thinking, the “normal” modes of thinking.

Some people tend to think in a linear fashion, that is, A causes B which causes C. Systems thinking recommends that we introduce circular feedback, that is, What if C can cause A? What if a combination of B and C can cause A?

Analytical thinking on the other hand, suggests that we split the whole into parts to understand how the whole works. Dr. Russell Ackoff, an American organizational theorist, points out that this is how we’ve been taught from school. Complex subjects are broken down into themes to aid understanding. This mode of thinking does not work for all situations.

Logical thinking in addition, implies that we adopt a chain of reasoning: if A, then B. This mode of thinking always starts with a premise and arrives at conclusion. Logical conclusions don’t depend on your opinion or value system. Thinking the logical way however, has its pitfalls (See post on logical fallacies).

The rules of logic clearly do not apply to all situations. This is because:

  • With logic, we observe certain characteristics of events and then generalise based on these
  • Logic does not consider the subjective or emotions
  • Logic can't predict the behaviour of complex systems due to their interconnected and complex nature

The point is, if you’re used to thinking a set way and have seen limited results, having a different set of “tools for thought” that allow you to explore different angles can be extremely invaluable. 

A first and perhaps, obvious step to thinking the systems way is valuing the opinion of others; trying out their perspectives to see if they make sense; and incorporating their insight. It involves constantly re-assessing your position for credibility, regardless of your worldview.

Karl Wiegers in this article, cited the story of six blind men and the elephant in which they each touched the same elephant but described it differently. Their perspectives weren’t wrong and they each combined to provide an accurate description of the elephant. The point is, interacting with different stakeholders can reveal different perspectives to a problem; a systems thinker would incorporate all these perspectives in order to get a full picture of the situation.

Why Exactly Is Systems Thinking Necessary in Business Analysis?

One of the central tenets of systems thinking is the need to understand how events relate to one another instead of studying them in isolation. A practical example is this: Fraud has been committed in your organization and you have been brought in to find out how it happened. You discover that: 1) Processes were not being monitored or audited, 2) Collusion amongst staff encouraged fraudulent practices, 3) Access control features of the system were weak; staff had access to system features they didn’t need and 4) Most of the workers were disgruntled and believed management didn’t have their interests at heart. These are four separate factors that on their own, could have caused the fraud.

Donning the systems thinking hat would prompt the analyst to ponder: Did staff find it easy to collude because processes were not being audited, leading to fraud? Did collusion amongst staff prevent process monitoring and implementation of effective access control features? Did a combination of all these factors lead to fraud? Systems thinking allows the analyst to focus on the interaction between events. It is an approach to problem-solving that views problems as part of a bigger phenomenon. So, instead of reacting to specific events, the analyst should look at ALL other things surrounding that event. An event should thus not be seen as occurring in isolation.

Systems thinking allows the analyst to consider different view points or “weltanschauung” when designing solutions for complex human activity systems or resolving messy situations. Analysts often deal with many people with differing worldviews, all potentially valid and proffering different ways to handle a problem. Understanding “where stakeholders are coming from“, can help the BA proactively identify potential resistance to certain system features and nip them in the bud.

Systems thinking allows the analyst to proffer solutions that work. Because systems thinkers consider the “unintended consequences of their actions”, they tend to also consider the long-term impact of any decision they make. For example, the person that invented cars most likely did not set out to cause environmental pollution. The pollution that comes with the use of cars in major cities can thus be considered an “unintended consequence” of manufacturing or selling cars. Considering the effect of whatever solutions we recommend on the environment (people, process and technology) is a strong evidence of systems thinking.

Why not practise applying systems thinking to the problems you encounter? 

Introduction to Systems Thinking - Pegasuscom
 Critical Thinking Free Course - Open. edu Free Course