A senior executive in a national philanthropic association recently commented: “Systems thinking has been around for many years, and I really see its value. However, many people see it as too daunting and difficult. How can I encourage them to use it?”

I found her question stimulating, and it prompted me to identify limits to the diffusion of systems thinking and what can we can do to help more people take advantage of the many benefits it offers. Here are five obstacles and corresponding strategies to overcome them.

Ambiguity about what systems thinking is. There are many different schools of systems thinking. While, most of them share a similar set of principles about how living systems behave and evolve, they are distinguishable in terms of the tools they use to help people understand them and increase their effectiveness. Engagement strategies:

  • Make your definition of systems thinking explicit, e.g. to understand and reorganize interconnected elements in such a way as to achieve a desired purpose.
  • Clarify a set of principles about how living systems function and how this is different from the more linear ways of thinking that people typically use.
  • Define the set of tools you use to analyze and improve system performance, e.g. causal loop diagramming, soft systems methodology, etc.

Making it overly simple – or complex. Some people say they already apply systems thinking when they bring diverse stakeholders together to talk, or when they map all of the interconnections between elements of a system. However, gathering different stakeholders does not guaranty that they will collaborate, nor does showing multiple interdependencies necessarily help people identify high leverage interventions. Engagement strategies:

  • Create systems maps that tell coherent stories of how and why people operate the way they do by surfacing recognizable patterns of behavior and underlying assumptions.
  • Explain how people’s current efforts unwittingly undermine their own effectiveness and the effectiveness of others as a way to motivate them to optimize the whole system.
  • Identify solutions based on the maps and integrate these into a systemic theory of change.

Knowing what systems thinking is but not knowing how to apply it. Knowing systems thinking principles and tools does not guaranty that people can effectively use them to improve performance. Moreover, selling “systems thinking” as a solution can lead people to resist applying it since they legitimately question if the promoter really understands their problem in the first place. Engagement strategies:

  • Integrate the principles and tools into a change management framework that enables people to build a strong foundation for change, more deeply understand and question why they behave as they do, make an explicit choice about what is most important, and design a more integrated and sustainable path forward.
  • Ask people why they have been unable to be more successful until now despite their best efforts and, if appropriate, introduce systems thinking as a way to help them answer that question and consequently identify more effective solutions.

People are not conditioned to think systemically. Our brains are wired to avoid loss more than achieve gain, preserve the status quo instead of effect change, weigh short-term impacts more than long-term results, and assign blame instead of take responsibility when under pressure. Moreover, our educational and reward systems tend to favor optimizing parts instead of the whole. Engagement strategies:

  • Use systems thinking to shift this conditioning by showing people how short-term costs often precede longer term gains, the status quo can be costlier than they believe, short-term gains can result in long-term losses, and accepting responsibility for what is increases their power and effectiveness.
  • Provide examples of children thinking systemically to illuminate that this is a natural ability, as when they identify the vicious cycle of fighting and how to break it.
  • Show people how working to optimize the whole is in their best interest by applying such approaches as shared visioning and systems thinking.

Changing thinking patterns takes time. Yes, it takes time for such changes to occur. However, the growing interdependence of our world demands that we cultivate this new way of thinking. Engagement strategies:

  • Introduce systems thinking to innovators and early adopters to build critical mass.
  • Be patient and persistent in applying it.
  • Train the next generation in systems thinking, as demonstrated in K-12 curricula supported by the Creative Learning Exchange (www.clexchange.org) and others.

You can learn more by reading David Peter Stroh’s new book Systems Thinking for Social Change: A Practical Guide for Solving Complex Problems, Avoiding Unintended Consequences, and Achieving Lasting Results, Chelsea Green, 2015.