Why we need systems thinking

Systems thinking is more abstract, and feels more theoretic than design thinking. And there are significantly less sticky notes involved. But it has the power to be a boon for innovation.

This is a plea for systems thinking.

Design thinking has made an astonishing career over the last couple of years. It has now probably arrived at even the last company that could make any use of it. But what about systems thinking? It's far less famous, although its impact, if properly applied, could be far greater. How comes? Not enough colourful sticky notes involved?

The success of design thinking may well be the last foray into the parallel world of linear thinking. That world is doomed to failure, because linear models no longer work in a globalised world driven by exponential change (and growth). Design thinking and its notorious post-it wars allow for pretty, feel-good innovation theatre that doesn't produce any tangible business results.

Besides of course the warm, fuzzy feeling of being innovative. It is the perfect tool to simulate innovation. As such, it is widely used in future camps and innovation centres all over the world. Design thinking can be nicely packaged into the early stage of product development, the ideation phase.

The results are then handed over to the same old, linear product development process that has been in place for decades. Its main feature is that it is linear. Think waterfall. This linearity makes it predictable. After the VW Golf VII comes the Golf VIII. Nothing wrong with that. As industrial societies, we've gained great wealth through linear industrial processes at scale.

But in this day and age, linear thinking increasingly looks like a risky bet.

Many successful start-ups are non-linear

To be clear: This is not at all design thinking's fault. The method itself is valid and can lead to valuable outcomes, if it's not misused for purposes described above. Ironically, the reason for this common misuse is itself systemic. The corporate system is linear. As such, it can incorporate all kinds of new methods, like design thinking.

But it cannot change itself into being non-linear.

This is a fundamental, systemic difference between industrial companies and start-ups. Many successful start-ups are non-linear, at least to a certain degree. Granted, some of them tend to fall back into traditional, linear patterns as they grow beyond the initial, tribal size. But at least in some vital aspects they think different, to borrow Apple's famous line.

They think in systems.

These systems are often described as loops. The feedback loop is a primary example. Or take the OODA loop (observe–orient–decide–act). A similar loop – see, judge, act – can be viewed as a simplified version of the OODA loop, with only three steps, and traced back to the 16th-century Spanish Basque Catholic priest and theologian Ignatius of Loyola.

Nir Eyal's hook model – itself an extension of the habit loop – is a blueprint for digital, habit-forming products. The Experience Loop by Matthias Schrader expands this model significantly. All these are examples of non-linear systems. Thinking in loops helps understanding the interrelationships between all the variables in a system.

Loop models foster learning processes

Given that we now live in a VUCA world, a world defined by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, it certainly makes a lot of sense to focus on the interdependencies between many variables. The important thing here is learning. Loop models foster learning processes.

They allow for faster learning than their more linear counterparts. Faster iterations. Shorter development cycles. To be honest – that's not a given. But systems thinking provides a framework for building, changing and maintaining systems that work this way. A linear corporate system is of course a system as well. However, non-linear systems appear to be more capable these days.

Systems thinking is more abstract, and feels more theoretic than design thinking. And there are significantly less sticky notes involved. But it has the power to be a boon for innovation.

Photo by Laurent Naville on Unsplash